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Catherine Fuller murder case: could defendants in brutal '84 murder get a new trial?

This painting of Catherine Fuller hangs in Barbara Wade's home.

Catherine Fuller’s son didn’t look down the alley of 8th and H Streets NE on that October day in 1984. He heard the police, and a friend goaded him on, telling him to take a peek, but the Fuller boy had band practice that day, was waiting for his bus, and didn’t care to be nosy. So the boy didn’t look down the alley. He didn’t see his mother dead on the ground.

Catherine Fuller died a terrible death. The wispy 48-year-old housewife, who often sucked on her thumb and laughed so easily, was pummeled by a group in broad daylight on Oct. 1, 1984, police concluded. There was no mercy. She was kicked and beaten; no one came to help. A metal pipe was shoved up her rectum. She reportedly suffered a torn liver and punctured ribs. All this, police said, for Fuller’s rings and a measly $50.

Nearly a dozen people stood trial for Fuller’s robbery and death. Her family members, including sister Barbara Wade, watched from the courtroom. It wasn’t easy. Wade, who testified, recalled leaving her seat only once, during the description of the pipe.

"I tried to sit there the whole trial,” Wade says, “because I wanted to know."

The story of Catherine Fuller is the kind that gets worse and worse with each twist. A 99-pound woman dies in a horrific beating, leaving behind her kids and husband. A handful of people — barely adults themselves — are trotted off before a judge months later, accused of participating in “one of Washington's most brutal homicides.” Most are locked up. A few are not. One died behind bars, some are still there.

The District took notice of the Fuller case. The carnage inspired headlines like “Bring Back the Death Penalty” and “Why Did Sanity Flee?” { }

Those weren't the last of the headlines. Later this year, a group of men will return to D.C. Superior Court and seek a vacated conviction or a new trial. They will claim that they spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Confessions were coerced, they will say. Testimony was false. Evidence wasn’t properly disclosed. The Fuller case might burst open in a D.C. courtroom again this fall, nearly three decades after the victim died on the street.

David Fuller, Catherine’s husband, told the Washington Post in an October 1984 story that he had stopped eating and sleeping after his wife’s homicide. "They took a part of my life away," he said. "How can you describe that?"

“They” were a large group of young men. By the time of the Post story, police had already arrested Alphonzo Lamar Harris on felony murder. By December, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Timothy “Snot Rag” Catlett and Turner, all 19 years old, had been taken into custody, along with a 17-year-old whose name wasn’t released.

Charles Turner, 20,{ }Calvin Alston, and Roland Franklin were also facing charges. At the time, it was the largest group of people arrested for a single homicide in the District, and police weren’t done yet.

Kelvin Smith, 19, was charged with felony murder in December 1984. Investigators thought the suspects were all members of the "Eighth and H Street Crew,” a gang that hung out near the H Street Corridor and near the Fuller home in Northeast. Those familiar with the area and its crowd weren’t buying it. Some told the Post that the arrests looked bogus and cops had been trying to crack down on the corridor for years without any success until Fuller’s death.

"I don't know where the police get this idea of gangs," a 19-year-old man told the Post. "I hang out with some of those guys sometimes. The police might arrest me next. I think that the police are pressuring one or two of those guys who really killed the lady to just drop every name they can think of."

Several people would stand trial for Fuller’s murder and a few more would take plea deals. The defendants entered the courtroom with Bibles in hand. They wore crisp, clean clothes and sported neat haircuts. "Like choirboys,” says Wade.

“(D.C. residents) looked at the children as somebody, some group of people who could have been their own brothers, their own sons, their own neighbors, and who could have turned on them without any warning whatsoever,” says Lillian McEwen, a defense attorney who worked on the case. “So it made the average citizen feel completely unsafe in their own neighborhoods.”

Catlett was the first sentenced, in January 1986. He received 35 years to life — the maximum penalty — and declined to make a statement at his sentencing. A string of tough sentences followed. The last of the Fuller defendants was sentenced in 1986, when Judge Fred Ugast sent Alston to prison for 12 to 36 years. Alston, a government witness who earned a lesser sentence because of his cooperation, testified that he pointed out Fuller before the attack. He wasn’t able to explain how a random robbery turned into a mass beating.

"The horror and the brutality of this crime has aroused this community and has raised the consciousness of this community in a way I haven't seen in my 13 years on the bench," Ugast said, according to a Post report.

Alston, who cried on the stand, apologized to the Fuller family, including Wade. He told the court that he understood that he did “something horrible.” A prosecutor asked the judge for leniency, saying Alston was of "great significance" to the case.

"I'm not the type of person to do something like that,” Alston said a day before he was sentenced, “but it happened.”

*************************************************************************************
“It happened” — those words carry a sense of{ }finality, especially when spoken by a defendant.{ }The Fuller case, though, remained alive in the investigative travels of{ }Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines.

In 1995, Gaines got a letter from defendant Christopher Turner. She arranged a prison visit with Turner, who gave her a letter from Harry Bennett, a defendant who confessed to the killing and turned on the other defendants. Gaines spent months rehashing the case. She interviewed attorneys, witnesses, defendants, and their family members. Gaines, who did not respond to TBD's requests for an interview, met with detectives and pored over records requests.

Buried in those documents was the name Ammie Davis. Why was that name so pivotal? That’s a complicated matter.

Court records show that Davis gave a statement to police about the Fuller slaying. It was steeped in detail and, in direct contradiction of the official narrative, it fingered a single person. Here’s what Davis said:

“The mother fucker just got out of jail the same day and killed her [Fuller]{ }for just a few dollars,” it reads. “He got out of jail on Monday and killed her on Monday.”

“When did this happen?” a detective responded.

“On October 1st,” said Davis.

“Where at?”

“In the Alley off H Street.”

The “mother fucker” to whom Davis refers is one James Blue, a man who was known to hang around H Street. Davis’ statement on Blue didn’t come straight out of the blue, either: Blue was indeed released from lockup on the day of Fuller’s murder.

Melvin Waddy, the eldest son of Ammie Davis, states in an affidavit that Davis was staying in a hotel through the witness protection program after she gave her statement about Blue. The protection apparently wasn’t a long-term thing: Blue killed Davis days before the Fuller trial began.

“After police moved her into the hotel, she told me that she had been put in witness protection because she had given the police information about a murder that James Blue had committed,” Waddy writes. “My mother — who was never afraid of anyone — told me that she was afraid that Blue was going to do something to her because of what she told the police.”

Davis’ aunt, Dorothy Morris, also remembers Blue, according to an affidavit. Morris states that Davis told her that she was “terrified of Blue,” and was afraid Blue would kill her for talking to the police.

“At some point, the police stopped protecting Ammie, and she had to move out of the hotel,” Morris’ affidavit reads. “Blue killed her soon after she moved out of the hotel.”

Blue died on Christmas Eve in 1993, according to a death certificate.

*****************************************************************************************

If a group of thugs killed and robbed Fuller, what happened to their plunder?

That’s where the statement from Vivian Watts come in. Watts’ sister was found with Fuller’s rings shortly after the murder. According to Watts, a man approached her and her sister’s boyfriend outside a liquor store on Oct. 1, 1984. In the man’s hand was a gold ring, with a diamond that appeared pushed out of place. The man, who was standing with a woman that night, wanted Watts or her sister’s boyfriend, Ronald Murphy, to buy the ring. He offered a cheap price, so Murphy picked it up.

It was not police, but Fuller’s sister, Barbara Wade, who later recovered the ring. Wade knocked on doors across the Stanton Park neighborhood until she came to the Watts house and claimed the band. The next day, according to Watts’ affidavit, Vivian was sitting in a police station.

“The police never showed me photos to try and identify the couple who sold Ronald the ring,” the affidavit reads. “Instead, the police kept telling me that the Eighth and H Street crew was responsible for the murder of Mrs. Fuller and threatened to charge me if I didn’t say my sister got the ring from the Eighth and H crew.

“I had never heard of ‘the Eighth and H crew’ and insisted that I did not see anyone from the neighborhood that night and they let me go. I never heard from the police again about the ring.”

Neither James Blue nor the description of the couple who sold Fuller’s ring came out at the original trial, which is exactly why it matters today. If attorneys can prove that the government knowingly withheld evidence that would have benefited their clients, they can argue there was a violation of due process. They can argue that their clients might have been acquitted if only this evidence was brought to light, and they can attempt to force a new trial.

Blue wasn't the only suspect police knew about but failed to disclose to defense attorneys. James McMillan was also on their radar in 1984. McMillan was a suspect in several other attacks on women in the same area where Fuller was murdered. He was eventually convicted of the attacks and sent to jail before the Fuller trial began. Years later, he was released. Soon after his release McMillan raped and murdered Abbey McClosky in an alley just blocks from where Catherine Fuller's half-naked body was found.

McClosky had been beaten, raped and sodomized in much the same way as Fuller. McMillan was convicted of that murder and became the first person in the District to be sentenced to life without parole. He's currently serving that sentence.{ }

Smith, Rouse, Yarborough, Catlett, Charles Turner, Overton and Christopher Turner, who was paroled, are scheduled to return to a D.C. courtroom in November. That's when Judge Frederick Weisberg will hear all the evidence, including testimony from witnesses, prosecutors, and detectives. It will then be up to Weisberg to decide whether to order a new trial or overturn their convictions.

“I knew (police) set us up,” Rouse says in an phone interview. “I knew they set us up. It wasn't hard to figure out. They just wanted us off the street. They knew we didn't do it."

Rouse is now housed at a Florida prison. He says he studies the Bible and works in food service. When asked about the new trial, Rouse said: "I really feel that I'm on my way home."

“We grew up around that neighborhood,” he says. “We would never do nothing like that. It made us look bad, but it also made us strong because we knew they lied."

In a statement, D.C. Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier declined to answer questions about the case.

“I am aware of the requests for a new trial in this case,” Lanier said. “I defer to the USAO on this matter.”

McEwen is perhaps more commonly known as the former girlfriend of Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas now. Another defense attorney who who worked on the case now has a gig on Fox News. Greta Van Susteren wasn’t available for an interview. There’s also defense attorney Frederick Sullivan, who is now a D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge. He also declined to comment through a court spokesperson.

Jerry Goren, who prosecuted the Fuller case, and Wade spoke earlier this year, when she was contacted about the possibility of a new trial, she said. Barbara Wade says she plans to sit through it all again, though she's sure the right men are already behind bars.

"I just hope I live to see it go down again," she says as she sits across from her sister's portrait which hangs in her living room. "If they had something to say, it should have been said years ago. Don't wait 25 years."

{ }

For more on the Fuller case, watch WJLA's broadcast tonight.

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