High Court to Weigh If Withheld Evidence Undoes Old Convictions

The Supreme Court will review the convictions of seven people in a 1984 murder case based on evidence withheld from defense lawyers during trial.
The Supreme Court will review the convictions of seven people in a 1984 murder case based on evidence withheld from defense lawyers during trial.

By Christopher Zoukis

After the District of Columbia’s highest local court declined to act on the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review two cases challenging the convictions of seven young people in a horrific 1984 murder case, because prosecutors withheld evidence from defense lawyers that pointed to other suspects, or weakened government witnesses’ testimony.

The Supreme Court will take up Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States March 29. The appeals hold the potential to revamp standards for how courts should decide whether prosecutors’ failure to disclose exculpatory evidence to defense counsel, as required by the high court’s landmark 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, forces convictions to be reversed.

On Oct. 1, 1984, Catherine Fuller, a 48-year-old cleaning woman and mother of six, had started walking from her home in northeast Washington, D.C. to a local store when she came across a group of youths hanging out in a nearby park. A few hours later her body was found in an alley; she had been dragged into a garage, robbed, brutally beaten, stripped and sodomized with a metal pole.

Investigating the high-profile murder, DC police questioned hundreds of witnesses and eventually focused on a then-little known local gang, the Eighth and H Crew. After arresting 17 individuals, prosecutors eventually charged a dozen defendants, including one woman, with the robbery, assault and murder.

In a six-week trial late in 1985, two defendants turned state’s evidence, got deals on lesser charges, and implicated the others. The lone woman and another defendant were acquitted, but the remaining eight defendants were convicted and given lengthy sentences. One died in prison, another was released in 2010, but six are still behind bars. All have consistently denied being involved in the crime.

Seeking to overturn their convictions, the appellants point to several issues. The two defendants who accused them have since recanted, claiming they were pressured by police and provided information on the case for their statements. Appellants also claim prosecutors violated the Brady decision by failing to share with defense lawyers statements from witnesses about other suspicious actions people observed in the area about the time Catherine Fuller was attacked, or who had told others they took part in the attack.

Specifically, they noted that, besides various statements that could have undercut prosecution witnesses, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence on two alternative suspects who were in the neighborhood at the time and had records of violent robberies of middle-aged women.

In 2015, the D.C. Court of Appeals heard those arguments but decided there was “overwhelming” evidence for the defendants’ guilt and said their co-defendants’ recanting of accusations against them was “not worthy of belief.” To have their convictions overturned, the DC appeals court concluded, defendants would have to show there was a “reasonable probability” they would not have been convicted if their defense team had been given the withheld evidence.

The Supreme Court took the case to examine whether D.C. used the correct standard for determining when Brady violations require overturning convictions. The case has attracted considerable interest from both prosecutors and defense lawyer groups, due to the potentially far-reaching consequences of a change in the standard of review of Brady violations.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.