Shocking 1984 D.C. rape-homicide reopened for withheld evidence

It was a rainy afternoon in Washington, D.C., when a 48-year-old cleaning woman and mother of six ran out to pick up a prescription. She never made it home.

It was an extremely high-profile case -- one of the first in the nation in which a group of teens and young people were depicted as a vicious criminal group capable of random violence against the innocent. A total of 17 young men were arrested and indicted for the appalling crime of sodomy and murder. Eight were eventually convicted of sexual offenses and first-degree murder.

In 2012, appellate attorneys and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project discovered something interesting about the eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a gang of young men near the crime scene. They had all recanted, meaning there was no longer sufficient evidence to support their convictions. The lawyers argued before the D.C. Superior Court that the men had been falsely convicted, but they were turned away.

Proof that false evidence was unknowingly presented at trial is often not enough to overturn a conviction. Now, however, the appeal team found something else that might be.

During the original investigation, the police had turned up an eyewitness who disagreed with the now-recanted statements of others. She did not claim to see a group of teens in the vicinity of the crime scene, but instead a single man. Furthermore, a man meeting the description she gave was later convicted of a very similar-sounding murder in the very same area.

In other words, the police and prosecutor had evidence that could have helped the defendants' case, but they didn't hand it over to the defense as required by law.

Under the 1963 case of Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all material, pro-defense evidence the government discovers must be turned over to the defense. If they don't, they have violated the defendants' due process rights and their convictions or sentences must be overturned.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the men's appeal. Even so, six have been in prison for over 30 years. One was paroled after 25 years. One died in prison.

When a crime seems terrible enough, the criminal case can get out of hand. Well-meaning people can go along with what they think police expect them to say. Otherwise good officers can hold back crucial evidence in order to avoid adding to the confusion. If they do, they risk putting innocent people in prison -- and letting the guilty go free.

If you've been accused of a sex crime, a homicide or any criminal offense, do not hesitate to get quality representation.

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