U.S. top court rebuffs men convicted in notorious Washington murder

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 22, 2017 12:45 PM

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday refused to overturn the convictions of seven men in a notorious 1984 gang murder of a woman in a Washington neighborhood not far from the U.S. Capitol even though prosecutors had concealed evidence in the case.

The justices, in a 6-2 ruling, said the evidence withheld by the prosecution at the time of the trial, which the men claimed would have cast doubt on their guilt in the murder of Catherine Fuller, was not material to the eventual jury verdict.

The case has stayed the public eye not only because of the grisly nature of the murder that occurred during a period of high crime in the U.S. capital city in the 1980s but also because of the Supreme Court's decision to scrutinize the process that led to the convictions.

Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of six, had gone shopping on Oct. 1, 1984, but was found dead a few blocks from her home in a filthy alleyway garage, about a mile (1.6 km) from the Capitol. She had been beaten, shattering her bones and damaging her liver, and then sodomized with a pipe-like object.

A jury convicted the seven men, who were in their teens to early-20s at the time, along with another man who subsequently died in prison.

Starting in 2010, the men pursued an effort to overturn their convictions, arguing that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence, including the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder. That man was known for committing robberies in the neighborhood, and years later committed a similar murder just three blocks from the scene of this crime, according to court papers.

The convicted men have maintained their innocence. They said the withheld evidence violated their right under the U.S. Constitution to due process of the law. The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that withheld evidence must be material to a defendant's guilt or punishment to be unconstitutional.

Writing for the court on Monday, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said the evidence in this case did not meet that standard because it was "too little, too weak or too distant" from the main evidence and would not have changed the jury verdict.

Liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the theory of an alternative perpetrator potentially could have swayed even one juror. "With the undisclosed evidence, the whole tenor of the trial would have changed," Kagan wrote.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court after arguments were heard in the case, did not participate in the decision.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)