Two writers covering mass incarceration from two different local angles were honored by the Pulitzer Prize committee. We explore the work of Tim Eberly and James Forman, Jr.
In 1984, the brutal killing of a mother of six gripped D.C. Eight young men were convicted and sent to prison. On Monday, a judge will begin hearings on whether those convicted should get a new trial–or even be exonerated. We speak with one of the original reporters on the case, whose years-long investigation led to the revelation of the evidence being presented today.
- Patrice Gaines Co-Founder, Brown Angel Center; author of "Laughing in the Dark —From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey From Prison to Power"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died in 1986 of a cocaine overdose. Should we still honor his accomplishments on the basketball court? But first, it was a brutal murder case that shocked the District. A mother of six was viciously beaten, sexually assaulted and robbed. Seventeen young men and one young woman were rounded up and arrested.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISix of them were convicted and sent to prison. A young Washington Post reporter who covered the story at the time spoke to neighbors and to the accused young men. Few in the press or the public questioned the official reports, but something didn't sit right with that Washington Post reporter about the case. And 12 years later, she started digging into the police records. Based on evidence she uncovered, today, a judge will determine whether there should be a new trial or even exoneration for those convicted.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe joins us now by telephone. Patrice Gaines is the author of the autobiography "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey From Prison to Power." She is the co-founder of the Brown Angel Center, where she is a speaker and workshop leader. She is the former Washington Post reporter, and she joins us now by telephone from South Carolina. Patrice, thank you for joining us.
MS. PATRICE GAINESOh, it's my pleasure, haven't talked to you in a long time.
NNAMDIThis is true, and it's good to hear your voice. Patrice, could you remind us about the facts of this case and why it gripped the city in the way that it did.
GAINESWell, yeah, it was in 1984, Oct. 1. And when the murder occurred, there was a woman, Catherine Fuller, who was a mother, lived in the neighborhood near 8th and H Street Northeast and was walking through an alley there. And police would eventually say that she was brutally beaten by a gang, they said, by a gang that they named the Eighth and H Crew. And they rounded up, I think, and maybe -- originally 30-some young people.
GAINESAnd they ended up -- it ended up, anyway, that 10 served time. Two of those became government witnesses. They, you know, testified, saying that they were there, and they saw what happened. And eight were sentenced to really major time. One got 25 to life, and the other seven got 35 to life. And it's those seven minus one who died in prison of an aneurysm. So that's how we get to the six. They've been in prison since 1984.
NNAMDIIt traumatized the city because of the brutal nature of the murder. She was beaten. A two-inch thick metal pole was shoved into her rectum. Her liver was shattered, lung was punctured. Four of her ribs were broken, the -- according to the authorities. In case you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you remember the original 1984 trial on the murder of Catherine Fuller?
NNAMDIDid you have any doubts at that time? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. We're talking with Patrice Gaines, the reporter from The Washington Post at the time who covered the story. Patrice, it's my understanding that you may be called as a witness. So there may be some details you're not able to share. But what's happening on the case right now?
GAINESWell, based on a lot of the evidence that I've found when I went back to take a look at the case -- based on that, they're asking these -- there are some law firms, prestigious law firms and the Innocence Project that are representing the six remaining guys. And they are asking that they be exonerated or given a new trial.
NNAMDIYour investigation, as we pointed out earlier, is the reason this case was reopened. You covered the case for The Washington Post at the time. And in the course of reporting on it, you felt that there were discrepancies between official reports and what you were hearing. You talked to neighbors and to the accused young men. Talk about some of the discrepancies one -- but one that surprised me had to do with the notion of this Eighth and H Street Crew.
GAINESYeah, well, when I was -- first went out there, you know, just to write a feature about the neighborhood and the people's reaction, the reaction wasn't anything like what I expected from what the police said. I found that none of the neighbors knew anything about the existence of a gang until they were told by police that one existed. So they weren't terrified. You know, they weren't afraid to speak.
GAINESThey weren't afraid to say what they heard if they heard anything. And so I was surprised, one, that they didn't know there was a gang. Then I was totally surprised that none of the people saw or heard anything. And it wasn't -- I didn't get the, you know, sense that there was any reason for them to lie. These were regular, you know, old people, young people, business people, you know?
GAINESIt could be anybody who lived in that neighborhood. Nobody heard or saw anything. And when I looked at the only people who heard or saw anything were the people that the police said heard and saw things. And those were all young people, many of them troubled, many of them with records or mental illness, or, you know, it -- they tended to fit a certain profile, actually. But the regular people that lived there -- people who lived right on that, you know, their backdoors facing the alley, and it was in daylight, broad daylight.
GAINESIt wasn't dark. It was during the day. It's a very busy area. Nobody saw this. And so it made me become suspicious that that many people could be in one place unnoticed. So, later on, it made more sense to me as I would uncover evidence that there were not that many people and that that's why, you know, later when I would talk to a medical examiner who said, yeah, you know, one person could have done this. But he said, nobody asked me that. Nobody on, you know, during the trial ever asked, could one person have done this?
NNAMDIIf you lived in a neighborhood where there was a crew in the 1980s, you generally knew the name of the crew. I lived on 8th Street Northwest. And a block over, there was a crew called the Rambo Crew, and we all knew the names of the crews. So to hear neighbors who say that they didn't know about either the existence or the name of a crew, obviously, would make you skeptical. The number again is 800-433-8850. Patrice Gaines, did The Post or anyone question the official reports by police at the time?
GAINESNo, not at the time. And I have to say, you know, it's amazing how much has changed really since 1984. We're talking, you know -- that's been quite a number of years.
NNAMDIYep, 28 years.
GAINESThe public has become more educated, and the public is more -- they believe more now that it's possible that police can make mistakes, that police can deliberately do things that innocent people can be -- again, go to prison, that, you know, witnesses can lie, that eyewitnesses can be mistaken. All of that did not exist in the public knowledge before. The media at that time did not question what police said.
GAINESThey just quoted them. Police said this happened. It happened. And that was the world of journalism at the time. Really, that's what I found. There wasn't even the existence of the Innocence Project that exists here in D.C. now. There was only one, which was the Innocence Project in New York because of the fact that there -- the need was not seen. We just were not as educated. So no...
NNAMDIWe're taking a new look at the case involving the murder of Catherine Fuller in 1984 in Washington, D.C. with Patrice Gaines, who is the author of the autobiography "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey From Prison to Power." She was with The Washington Post as a reporter and covered the story at that time. She joins us by phone from South Carolina.
NNAMDIShe is the co-founder of the Brown Angel Center, where she's a speaker and a workshop leader. She's, as we said, a former reporter for The Washington Post. Patrice, you kept this case in the back of your mind, and you picked it up again 12 years later. Why?
GAINESWell, yeah, it was in the back of my mind. I was haunted by it from the beginning when I had those suspicions that, you know, that something didn't seem right. The puzzle pieces didn't fit. But I had to repress that because it just was too overwhelming for me to think that this many people could go to prison for something that they didn't do. I didn't want to believe that. I didn't even want to believe, you know, that all of the variables that I would have to believe to make that true.
GAINESI didn't want to believe that. I didn't want to carry that with me for years, so I just put it to the side. And then after my first book, my autobiography, came out in 1994, I got a letter from one of the guys. In fact, he's the one that's out now. And he wrote me a letter because he read about my book in USA Today. And he said to me that he was stunned to find out about my background 'cause when I was 21, I was arrested and charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
GAINESI didn't sell drugs. But I was carrying some, and I was with some guys who sold marijuana. And that was the way my life was at that time, you know? So I went to jail. I was fortunate. I did go to prison. And then I began the long journey of changing my life, so...
NNAMDIAnd when that young man read about that in your autobiography, what was his reaction?
GAINESWell, he told me that he was stunned because he had always blamed -- well, for a long time, he had blamed me as one of the reporters who's responsible for his being there because he thought it was the way the story -- excuse me -- was covered.
NNAMDIAnd he hated you, didn't he?
GAINESHe hated me. He hated me, and he told me that for years he had prayed that something bad would happen to me. But he told me that he had learned, he had evolved, and he no longer prayed that bad would happen to anyone, and that now he would pray that I would be able to reach a lot of young people so they wouldn't end up where he was. But he said I am still innocent, and that just -- all of the doubts...
NNAMDIThat struck a responsive chord with you, didn't it?
GAINESOh, all the doubts, all the pain I had when I was covering it because of the anguish, the doubts I had that I wasn't confident enough to be able to pursue at the time. Now, those doubts returned. And I thought, I'm a different reporter, and I'm capable, and I'm able. And I had the confidence to believe that I could do it and go against anybody who said that, you know, you're crazy, or, you know, I thought I'm going to see if I'm crazy. I'm going to pursue this. So that's...
NNAMDIYour own arrest was a big part of why you not only dug into this case, but now, you work to help others. Right now, you focus on women and bringing attention to conspiracy charges. And I want to get into a little more about that later. But you had to get lawyers involved to get the police records that you were seeking. And when you got those files, certain lines were redacted. Tell us about that.
GAINESYes. I had to get the lawyers from The Washington Post to negotiate with the city to, I think, basically threaten to sue if they wouldn't give me the police records because when I originally asked for them, I was told it would take two years. And I thought, ah, I'm not going to work on this for two years. I thought originally -- see, I was just going to do a feature story.
GAINESBut with the doubts and the suspicions, and I began to find things. And so when the lawyers got involved, I was able to get the records. And, yeah, it was a very thick file. And they had redacted, you know, which means they crossed out all kinds of information, which they said was protecting people's privacy. However, I looked at that stack and thought we're human. We make errors. Surely, they've forgotten to cross out something. And it was in that stack that I found pretty much the majority of the things that this new case is based on, this new trial.
NNAMDIYou discovered, looking through those stacks, it wasn't redacted that a woman had reported witnessing the crime. What did you find out?
GAINESYes. This woman had said that -- she said she was a drug addict and that she was in the alley shooting up drugs and that this guy that she was with had beaten this woman to death, and that he did it for just a few dollars or some jewelry, that she didn't have much, but that he did it for drugs. And then I also found out that the next -- well, that very night that Ms. Fuller was killed, that some young people purchased her diamond ring for $5. Well, for me, and knowing the old life I used to live, if somebody's going to sell a diamond for $5, I'd say they're a drug user.
GAINESThey just want money. And so I thought, OK, well, none of these guys were drug users, and plus, the young people, when I tracked them down, that had purchased the jewelry, they said -- they described a couple that were in, like, their early 30s, late 20s, that they purchased it from. That didn't fit also the description of any of the young people who were arrested.
GAINESAnd then they also tell me that the police did not take them to look for the couple that they saw, didn't show them photos, didn't, you know, take them to the area where they purchased it, and that they felt very much like they had been threatened or pressured to either be -- they would be considered part of the gang, or they would need to just basically forget that this happened.
GAINESAnd so they were petrified, you know, with all they had because this was maybe the day after was when they found out -- after they found out there had been a killing, then they thought maybe this is the lady's ring, Ms. Fuller's ring. And they were petrified, so they never said another word about that until...
NNAMDIAnd as for the woman who reported witnessing the crime, that information was in the possession of the prosecution. Did the defense ever get that information?
GAINESWell, we think it was in the, you know, in the -- that the prosecutor had it. I talked to the police officer who took that information. He says he took it to the prosecutor's office and left it. It was late at night. The defense never got that information. They never knew about the diamond ring being purchased and these young people. They never knew about this witness. So, no, they never got that information.
NNAMDIPatrice, what would have happened if you had not picked up this case and brought the resources of a private law firm to bear on it?
GAINESWell, we certainly would be -- would not be having this hearing and the possibility of them being exonerated. That would not have happened. And, you know, I shudder to think how many people that this does happen to. We have not a clue. We have no idea how often this happens. You know, and that's not to say that everybody in prison is innocent -- not at all. But we have to understand that, you know, police are human beings like everybody else. And the way I look at it is not everybody does a good job on their job.
GAINESYou know, the people you work with, some half do it, some don't, some don't care, some, you know, have a certain theory about the work, no matter what your work is. But when you are an officer and entrusted with such a special privilege, a responsibility, then you have to do your very best every time. You know, you have to follow the rules. Everybody has to see the information. You could possibly be wrong. I mean, at the least, you know, I'm saying it's deliberate.
GAINESI don't know, but you can be wrong, and we can't allow people to just -- we can't just quote people. I'm glad the media has changed about -- too often, I think, people still just quote people in certain scenarios. They just quote people. Even one of the -- the first young guy, who, in this case, who signed a confession -- and the only one, I believe, that signed a confession -- he was 16 years old.
GAINESThis was another thing that struck me when I went to the community. He was 16 at the time. He was a special ed student. He couldn't read well at all, and he signed a confession. When I asked him why he signed it, he said because they asked me to, because, in his head, police officers are to be trusted, and you do what they say.
NNAMDIThey're authority figures.
NNAMDIAs to the question of whether or not there was an 8th and H Street crew, we have a caller, Tim, in Bethesda, Md. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Tim.
TIMHi, Kojo, thank you very much for taking my call. The -- you know, I can only confirm that there was definitely a crew there. My friends and I used to go to that area -- remember, this was 1984 -- and buy (unintelligible) pot from the crew. There was snot-rag. A couple of other guys whose names I don't remember. But I do recall also was they were very much always trying to get us to buy PCP which seemed to be kind of their mainstay -- I don't know what they sold up there...
NNAMDIOh, no. There was no question that there were a lot of people who hung around that corner. It still is a very busy corner. You'll always see a lot of people in that corner. The question was whether or not they referred to themselves as the 8th and H Street Crew.
TIMWell, I guess, I can't answer the question for sure, but it was definitely a tight-knit group of guys, always the same guys. We were going up there for, I don't know, maybe...
NNAMDIOh, no question. Patrice -- thank you very much for your call, Tim. There's always been a lot of people around that corner, Patrice Gaines.
GAINESOh, yeah. And I want to say also, you know, this was during the time -- it's the early '80s -- when if you went to Go-Go's, everybody was the southeast crew, the (unintelligible) crew, the, you know, the 8th and H Street Crew. Everybody had a response and a crew name. Now, some of these guys who were arrested did not know each other. They were arrested as a gang, not even like a Go-Go crew. They were a gang. And you have to understand that that word at the time had a real trigger effect because gangs were big in California, in L.A. and Compton.
GAINESYou know, that was the news all the time. It was gangs, you know, in inner- Chicago, gangs. And so the word gang had -- came with so much. It was loaded. So for them to say this was a gang -- it was the first time that police had said that a group was a gang, that -- it was later in the '80s when crack really hit the street that we begin to see gangs that sold crack. But this was before. This, you know -- so it was a different time. And, yeah, I, you know, in a neighborhood, they probably said, yeah, we're the 8th and H Crew 'cause they're from 8th and H Street.
GAINESBut some of those guys only knew each other by name like the young man who's out now. He says people will ask him about some of the others guys or their family, and he will say, I don't know, 'cause he never knew them until he was arrested with them.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid...
NNAMDII'm afraid, Patrice, that's all the time we have. We're running out of time. But this is a case that we will be following as you have been doing for the last 12 years or so. Patrice Gaines is the author of the autobiography, "Laughing in the Dart -- From Colored Girl to Woman in Color, A Journey From Prison to Power." She's the co-founder of the Brown Angel Center. Oh, before I go, I have to ask you a little bit. What do you do at the Brown Angel Center?
GAINESWell, we run workshops at the jail, and we also help women when they get out, refer them to their -- they need housing, they need jobs. So we try to help them. But try to at first help with the thinking and change their thinking and how they reach decisions and mostly get them to understand that it -- really, the root of it is self-hatred. And so we do some things with that, but then we try to help them get on their feet to start a new life.
NNAMDIPatrice Gaines, she's also a former Washington Post reporter. Patrice, thank you so much for joining us.
GAINESOh, thank you very much.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back we will talk about another traumatic incident in Washington, the death in 1986 of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias of a cocaine overdose and whether or not that should affect how or whether we honor his accomplishments on the basketball court. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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