The murder of Catherine Fuller was one of the first stories I was assigned when I went to work for the Washington Post in 1985. I was sent to a Northeast community to get information about a group of young people police had arrested in the killing. Police said Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of five, had been kicked, beaten and sodomized with a pole in broad daylight in an alley surrounded by houses and businesses. The city was outraged.
But the story I found in the community was different than the story police had told. Police said a gang had beaten Fuller to death but no one I questioned knew anything about the existence of a gang. Instead, I found a case partially built on the signed confession of a 16-year-old special education student who could barely read and had an I.Q under 70. Also, I could not find anyone who had heard anything unusual in that alley, although police said up to 30 youths beat Fuller in broad daylight.
Everything I heard in the neighborhood made me suspicious of the police’s story. But in 1984, I was a cub reporter and I did not have the confidence or know-how to investigate this case. I did not have the heart to go against the furor whipped up by media coverage and police’s detailed descriptions of the violent death. When the youths were found guilty, I suppressed the haunting doubts gnawing at me; it was the only way I could survive.
Years later, in 1994, my autobiography, “Laughing in the Dark, From Colored Girl to Woman of Color – A Journey from Prison to Power,” was published and USA Today did a story about me. One of the men serving time in this case, Chris Turner, read the article and wrote me a letter that said something like: I would never have guessed we had anything in common. I used to pray that something bad would happen to you because you were part of the media that put me here. But I long ago learned that praying is not for bad. So now I will pray that you will be able to touch the hearts of many young people so they won’t end up where I am. But I want you to know I am still innocent.
The letter awakened all of my repressed doubts about this case—and this time, I knew how to investigate and I had the confidence to believe I could. It would take nearly six years of work and assistance by another reporter. But the most damaging evidence to the prosecution case that I found and the foundation of the hearing being held in the District over the next three weeks was this:
Every witness except one recanted, saying they were pressured by police into becoming a witness and that they believed that if they did not cooperate they would be charged as a member of the gang also. I cannot remember the number of people who told me they lied, but it was around 11 or 12. In 1984 they had been frightened kids—a pregnant, teenage girl, a mentally ill teenage girl, a young man already facing drug charges he said police used to threaten him. Two recantations came from the prosecution’s star witnesses, who were still in prison when they told me they lied.
Because of their testimony, they had both received lesser sentences than the youths who maintained their innocence and refused to become witnesses.
I had to get the newspaper’s lawyers to negotiate with the City to get the police records that I had requested two years earlier. When the City reluctantly turned over the files, I found some very interesting facts, evidence being used in the courtroom this week. First, I discovered that a woman had gone to police to say she was in the alley along with a drug user who beat Catherine Fuller to death. This was very important information that was never turned over to defense attorneys, which is a violation of the law.
Second, I discovered that two youths had purchased Fuller’s diamond wedding ring for $5 about an hour after her death. The youths told me they bought the ring from a couple in their 30s and neither of the people fit the description of any of the defendants. Furthermore, the teens said police never showed them photos to identify the couple. Police told me they did not think the information was important, so it was discarded. The youths who purchased the ring forgot the incident; too, because they told me they felt threatened that police would make them a part of the gang unless they went away.
After I had worked for years on this story, the Washington Post refused to publish it. The paper did not see any importance in the evidence I had found. At least, they did not think it proved the guys were innocent and the paper did not care that the law may have been broken by the prosecutor.
To me, I saw clearly that I had knocked down every piece of evidence the prosecution had. Even the man who was the medical examiner at the time told me one brutal person could have committed the murder. And that would have explained to me why no one witnessed it. The killing could have been done in a few minutes, the examiner said.
With the help of one editor, I was able to get a story in the Style section of the paper. It was not a news story; it was an article about what I had done with the last six years of my life and what I had found. The story ran May 6, 2001 and on that day I put in my two-week notice to leave my job. I felt I had outgrown a media organization or a belief system that did not treat young black men the same way it treated police officers. To me, every word had to be investigated regardless of who spoke it.
Of course, I do not know what the final verdict will be. I had hoped to sit in on the trial, to witness what I have waited 28 years to experience. But I was notified that next week I could be called as a witness, so I am not permitted to sit in on any of the hearing.
I am fine with that. When you believe you have done your best, a peace comes over you. Besides, this case was never about me or my ego gratification. It is about the truth and about how far we as individuals will go to pursue justice.