Tue July 5, 2011
A Murder, 7 Convictions And Many Question Marks
In the fall of 1984, in a rain-soaked alley in Washington, D.C., a street vendor found a tiny woman lying dead on the floor of a garage.
She was Catherine Fuller, a mother of six, who left home to run a quick errand and never came back. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and killed all within sight of a busy public street.
The murder horrified and frightened the city. Over the next few months, police arrested 17 people in connection with the crime.
Now, a review by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project is exposing doubts about the police investigation — and raising questions about whether one of the young men who was convicted really took part in the attack.
Brutal Attack Strikes A Nerve In D.C.
Coverage of the case played out every day in the papers and every night on the evening news, where reporter Gary Reals filed story after story.
"Four of the suspects, including 19-year-old Christopher Turner, were rousted from their beds, put into handcuffs and taken away," Reals said.
Back then, Chris Turner had graduated from high school and had a job tutoring local kids. He was trying to find a way out of the tight-knit neighborhood he had outgrown.
The Fuller case took him away — to prison — for more than a quarter-century. He got out a few months ago, on parole. NPR met up with him in the old neighborhood, in the same alley where police found Fuller's body.
"This is actually my first time back through here in over, what, 26 years," Turner says. "It's still baffling to me that they believed that I, you know, could do something like that to another human being."
Here's how the prosecutors say it all went down:
A bunch of kids were hanging out near a bus shelter during rush hour on a rainy October afternoon. Witnesses recalled the boys were singing a song by the D.C. musician Chuck Brown.
A dollar bill is a friend of mine. A nickel and dime. It's love boat time. I need some money. Got to have some money.
Then some of the kids spotted Fuller walking nearby through the rain, curlers in her hair. The guys allegedly went at her in two groups. And when she stopped struggling, one of them assaulted her with a pipe.
No one denies it was a horrible scene. Authorities said the murder was the work of a dangerous gang.
The Fuller killing struck a nerve. It spoke to fears that something new and dangerous was moving through the city.
'I Thought I Was Going To Walk'
Prosecutors argued that dozens of people may have stood and watched in the alley while Fuller suffered.
Turner's lawyer isn't so sure.
"We do know that there were street vendors along the street who were there the entire time, and they didn't report seeing any crowd of people in the alley," says Barry Pollack, a defense lawyer with experience helping people who have been wrongfully convicted.
Now he's trying to clear Turner's name, get a judge to overturn the conviction and order a new trial. Turner, who had no prior criminal record, has always maintained his innocence. In fact, he said, the U.S. Marshals providing security for the trial thought so too.
"At the conclusion, while the jury was deliberating, they was actually preparing my paperwork," Turner recalls. "They were so sure that I would actually be acquitted that they was preparing my paperwork, and I thought I was going to walk."
Two boys from the neighborhood who were near the alley the day of the murder pleaded guilty and testified at trial. After more than 60 different votes, jurors eventually found Turner guilty.
And the Justice Department says it's confident in all of the convictions for the Fuller murder, given her severe physical injuries and the eyewitnesses to the assault.
A Different Suspect Emerges
But Pollack says there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the government's case.
There was never any physical evidence tying any of the defendants to the crime scene. Two people who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial got shorter prison sentences in exchange for their cooperation with the government. Two other witnesses from the neighborhood who testified have submitted sworn statements recanting their testimony.
And then, an even bigger complaint: Prosecutors allegedly never turned over statements from several witnesses that would have placed another suspect near the alley that day.
His name was James McMillan. He went to jail for crimes against women that took place within a few weeks of the Fuller attack.
"The government never disclosed to the defense they had three eyewitnesses who saw McMillan leaving the crime scene right around the time that the body was found," Pollack says.
Authorities say that from the records that still exist, it's not clear whether McMillan was ever questioned in the Fuller case.
But Pollack, who's working with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, thinks McMillan may well have been involved in the murder. McMillan lived only steps away from the same alley where Fuller's body was found. Several years later, he was convicted of assaulting and killing a woman in another D.C. alley. He acted alone.
Jim Trainum, a retired D.C. police detective who now runs a consulting business and does occasional volunteer work for the Innocence Project, says he can't forget McMillan.
"I interviewed him, and during my interview he's one of the few people that actually scared me," Trainum says. He says McMillan emerged as a suspect in one of his burglary cases back in those days. "He was a boxer, and if he wanted to, he could have come across that table and done me all sorts of harm, and I couldn't have stopped him," Trainum says.
McMillan is serving a life sentence in Kentucky. He didn't respond to a letter from NPR. And he's never been charged with any wrongdoing in the Fuller case.
A Break In The Case?
Prosecutors in D.C. wouldn't talk on tape either, because the Fuller murder is very much an open issue.
A judge in the city has asked to hear testimony this fall from government witnesses who have recanted — changed their stories — including the men who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial all those years ago. The judge also wants to hear from the retired prosecutors and police investigators.
And then, late last year, what could be a break in the case: D.C. officials were preparing to close an old warehouse stuffed with evidence. And Trainum turned up three boxes filled with material from the Fuller murder.
What was inside?
"The very stuff they really needed to analyze this case," Trainum says. "The victim's clothing — there was semen found on the victim's clothing. Hairs and fibers that were taken from the victim. These were things that could be compared to the folks who were charged and are currently in jail. And they could also be compared to other suspects as well."
The judge has ordered DNA tests on all of that material, including new tests that look for skin cells left behind when a victim's clothes are grabbed. But prosecutors say even if they find someone else's DNA on Fuller's clothes, that doesn't mean that Turner didn't do it.
In court filings, prosecutors say a policeman observed Turner in a holding cell shortly after his arrest, telling one of his friends there wouldn't be any physical evidence tying them to the crime because they never touched Fuller. Turner's lawyer says he has doubts about whether that conversation ever happened, and even if it did, he has countered that's evidence of innocence, not a guilty mind.
A Past That Won't Be Forgotten
Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, researches wrongful convictions. He recently published a book on the subject, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong.
"We know that eyewitnesses can make serious mistakes now, and we know that people can falsely confess, and we know that people can plead guilty when they are innocent," Garrett says.
The law professor added that several famous cases in which multiple defendants were convicted of rape and violent attack — including the Central Park jogger attack and the Beatrice Six case in Nebraska — ended up very differently years later. It turned out in those cases that only one person had committed each crime.
Turner says he knows the trial all those years ago still lives in a lot of people's minds.
"Guys, people on the bus stopped me the other day and screamed out on the bus, 'I saw you're out on TV man, that's messed up what they did to y'all, man.' You know, guys that I haven't seen in 26 years, they recognize me."
But Turner, who found a new job at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium and recently won an award there, knows he won't shake the past so easily. Only 1 or 2 percent of people like him win new trials.
"Even if I'm exonerated, it'll still be, I'm one of the guys who was convicted of the Fuller murder," he says.
And Turner says he'll carry that around with him for the rest of his life.
NPR producer Evie Stone contributed to this report