Sept. 6, 2023
Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts. New episode every Wednesday. Use #TheAlleyPod to share your thoughts on the the latest episode as we uncover the truth behind DC's 8th and H Case.
Six of the surviving accused men adjust to life outside of prison walls. In a final act, they consider a last-ditch effort to clear their names and bring justice to light: a presidential pardon.
Voices & Sounds Heard in this Episode
- Chris Turner, one of the accused
- Clifton Yarborough, one of the accused
- Timothy Catlett, one of the accused
- Reuben Jonathan Miller, professor, former New America fellow, and author of Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration
- Olivia McCann, former parole officer, parole reform advocate
- Don Salzman, attorney involved in the post-conviction proceedings
- Tom Dybdahl, former DC public defender and author of When Innocence Is Not Enough
- Charles Turner, one of the accused
- Russell Overton, one of the accused
- Levy Rouse, one of the accused
Episode 8: One Last Shot
Gabrielle Sweet: The following story contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault. Listener discretion is advised.
Shannon Lynch and Chris Turner (onsite): So which bank was this at that time? The National Bank of Washington? Yeah. Okay.
Narrator (Shannon Lynch): In early February 2023, I met Chris Turner and Cliff Yarborough at the intersection of 8th and H streets. The H Street Corridor would be unrecognizable to someone standing at this exact spot in 1984. We walked around the block together as they described what it all looked like back then.
Shannon Lynch and Chris Turner (onsite): And then as far as the park, like, was it this whole area right here? Yeah. You can't even begin to even imagine.
Narrator: That was Chris. And he’s right. It’s really hard to imagine now, but the park that the supposed 8th and H crew hung out at once stood on the southeast corner of the intersection. The park spanned nearly a whole city block. That space has since been replaced by a massive building with fancy apartments and mixed-use retail.
Chris Turner (onsite): All this was the bus stop and the bus station. And as people sit down like, they had walls where you can just like sit down and like you wait on the bus. There's people like that, there used to be a bus stop there. I mean, it used to be more people there.
Narrator: We walked by several storefronts as they explained to me which businesses once stood in their place. Almost none of the establishments are the same, but interestingly, where Mrs. Fuller was last seen alive is still a liquor store, it just operates under a different name. Finally, we looped around to the alley, entering on the 9th street side.
Chris Turner & Shannon Lynch (onsite): Well, this is the garage, and none of this would have extended out. Yeah. None of these garages came out here. It was just all backyard. All right? This entire part, there were no garages? No garages, all this was built. All this is add-on. Was this the only garage here? Yeah. Yeah, just the only garage back this way. All this was just old open space backyards.
Narrator: Today, almost all of the houses that back up to the alley have garages or built out additions, but back in 1984, the line of sight was a lot more open.
Chris Turner (onsite): But see the government made it seem like you doing this to take this out of somebody's view. Like you’re bringing her into seclusion. And this ain’t seclusion. I mean, it’s the furthest thing from it. All of these are backyards. All of these are houses.
Narrator: I’d walked through this alley many times before, but standing there with Cliff and Chris was surreal. We paused at the spot where the government claimed the bulk of the assault took place. Standing there, surrounded by the sounds of traffic and pedestrians nearby, it was really hard for me to imagine a group of 20 or so young people beating a woman to death without a single independent eyewitness noticing.
This is The Alley: DC’s 8th and H Case. My name is Shannon Lynch.
Episode 8: One Last Shot
Last time, we heard from Patrice Gaines, a former Washington Post reporter who was instrumental in reviving the 8th and H case. Gaines uncovered evidence that the government hid from the defendants and their lawyers. She sent all of this information to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which decided to take on the case.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2017. The defendents’ lawyers presented information about two alternative perpetrators: James Blue and James McMillan. Additionally, the government’s two star witnesses from the 1985 trial — Derrick Bennett and Calvin Alston — both signed affidavits that said they were coerced by police and that their original testimonies were untrue.
With a vote of 6-2, the Supreme Court decided that the hidden evidence wasn’t enough to grant the defendants a new trial. Justice Kegan, along with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented.
Part 1: Different Air
Today, all six of the surviving men from the 8th and H case are out on parole. Chris Turner got out in 2010, but the rest of them weren’t released until the past few years. The last one to get paroled, Russell Overton, came home in March of 2022. Kelvin Smith and Steve Webb are sadly no longer with us, but Chris Turner, Charles Turner, Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Cliff Yarborough, and Levy Rouse all still live in the DC area.
In most murder cases, in order to be granted parole, an individual must confess some kind of guilt. None of the accused men did that in this case. They were all able to convince their respective parole boards to let them out, possibly based, in part, on the unfairness of their original trial. They all continue to adamantly maintain their innocence.
When talking about getting out on parole, something I found interesting was that several of them felt an immediate physical sense of change. Here’s Clifton Yarborough:
Clifton Yarborough: My counselor said, “I just want you to walk outside Mr. Yarborough because I want to see [you] and ask you this question. Ain't this air different from the other air?”. When I walked out, I was looking up. I didn't see my sister and my girlfriend walking towards me. But I seen the shadow of their hug.
Narrator: Here’s Timothy Catlett
Timothy Catlett: The case manager turned around. He was like, you know, everybody, they called me Cat short for my last name. He was like, “Cat you can step off the sidewalk. You free now.” You know, it was, it was a good feeling. It was a very good feeling to actually get out there, it seemed like the air was different.
Narrator: As you can imagine, the mental adjustment to being on the “outside” after spending decades confined by prison walls is a heavy lift. For most formerly incarcerated people, they go through this process largely unassisted. Mr. Catlett said it’s been a struggle to adjust to social interactions:
Timothy Catlett: I learned a lot because, you know, from us being in jail for so long, you know, it's certain ways you live. You don't let people talk to you any kind of way. You don't let people do this to you and you don't go for this. You don't go for that. But the dudes on the job used to joke with me a lot, they would say, “Tim, come on home, Tim, come on home. You're not locked up anymore.” And that's one of the biggest things that I’m starting to get now because you can’t talk to a female the way you talk to a male in jail. But if you’re not paying attention, oh, it will come out real fast.
Narrator: For some of them, bad experiences while in prison have affected their ability to do those same activities now on the outside. Here’s Mr. Yarborough again.
Clifton Yarborough: Adjusting to this world, it was hard, but I'm making a pretty good adjustment now. I want to experience a movie. I want to go to a movie. I had a bad experience in prison with movies. But I'm ready to try a movie now.
Narrator: Part 2: The Opposite of Rehabilitation
In DC, we have these annoying speed cameras all over the city that residents overwhelmingly loathe. Imagine you are on a trip to DC, and you go 15 miles over the speed limit. Unbeknownst to you, your speed was recorded by a strategically placed camera, and a few weeks later you get a $100 citation in the mail. You begrudgingly send in the money, but that should be the end of it, right? What if the DC government sent you a $100 ticket every year for the rest of your life for this single instance of speeding. Do you think that’d be fair?
In the United States, our penal system is designed to do only one thing effectively: punish, not rehabilitate. And yes, people that commit crimes deserve to be punished…but what happens after that? Shouldn’t a person have a chance at redemption after serving their time? And wouldn’t it be in our best interest to provide this group of people with enough support so they can make meaningful and positive contributions to society after completing their sentence?
When I asked former New America Fellow and University of Chicago professor Reuben Jonathan Miller about this, this is what he said:
Reuben Jonathan Miller: Does prison rehabilitate? Absolutely not. Prison does not rehabilitate, because in the 1970s, we decided that punishment was no longer for rehabilitation. Americans, when polled prior to the 1970s, they said the chief reason that we should have a prison is to rehabilitate prisoners so that when people came out of jail or prison, they could live so-called productive lives. By the 1990s, we decided that rehabilitation no longer worked. That rehabilitation was no longer what the prison was for, that we couldn't rehabilitate prisoners. In fact, we decided that there were certain kinds of people that couldn't be rehabilitated at all. And so in that moment, this kind of 1970s to 1990s set of decades, we decided that the real reason for punishment in this country was for incapacitation to get criminals off the street, because it made us feel more safe. And this is what politicians ran on. This is the decision that we made.
Narrator: As Reuben explained, the United States of America decided decades ago that the purpose of prison was simply to throw people away. There’s a problem with this thinking, though. It’s extremely short-sighted. The vast majority of prisoners will reenter society. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of March 2023, only about 2.5 percent of prisoners are serving life sentences. Some of the incarcerated that aren’t serving life sentences will die in prison. But that still leaves upwards of 95 percent that will be released at some point. When these individuals come out, we make it extremely difficult for them to be productive members of society.
I talked with Olivia McCann about this. McCann spent several years working with offenders who were out on parole in Washington State. Now, she works for Fedwriters out of Fairfax, Virginia. She’s also an activist who advocates for more fact-based and humane forms of law enforcement. I asked her to explain the different obstacles formerly incarcerated people face when they reenter society.
Olivia McCann: The number one thing is the huge stigma that comes with having a criminal history. It makes it harder for the released inmates to get a job or find housing. And then there's also a lot of inmates [with] a lack of education, a lack of work experience, which makes it hard to find employment. And if they've spent ten, 20, 30 plus years in prison, their education and any vocational skills that they have learned depends on what is offered in the prison that they were at or in the jail that they were at. And are the vocational skills or the jobs that they had in prison, will they help them on the outside? You know, if somebody is making license plates for 20 years, that's not really going to help them once they're released into the community and they're often turned down for jobs because of their criminal history, or if they have a long term job in prison, an employer might not see that as work history.
Narrator: Timothy Catlett experienced that last part this first-hand. While serving his time, he found a passion for cooking. He has more than 30 years of experience working in prison kitchens. Nonetheless, he told me he had trouble finding a restaurant job after being paroled because he was told he lacked credible experience.
Timothy Catlett: I was trying to get me a job in a restaurant. I didn't want to work in a fast food restaurant because I have all my documentations. I have lifetime food cards, I have a manager license, I have an alcohol license, even though I probably will never get to use it. But, you know, I have all my certified papers, which I know a lot of people in restaurants do not have. You know, and it still bothers me to this day because I go to all these restaurants now and they got these little young kids in there, don't know which way to turn. But yet y'all wouldn't give me a job. They have this thing, all of them I went to. You have to have at least one year working in a restaurant.
Narrator: Olivia McCann explained some more hardships formerly incarcerated people face.
Olivia McCann: When we look at housing, all housing applications, even public housing, have an area where they ask for criminal history. And this is one thing that kind of really annoys me about public housing, which is housing that is meant for those that are economically disadvantaged. Newly released inmates are often denied for even public housing because of their criminal history. And they often are economically disadvantaged. So they aren't getting the housing that is meant for them, which it's kind of like forced homelessness in a way. And then if there are any mental health or substance use disorders, that might significantly impact their life on the outside if they don't have proper treatment. And there's also a lack of continuity of care from prison to the community. So say like when you go to the E.R., you meet with a doctor, the doctor goes over treatment plan, you're discharged and you get discharge orders, and then they send any referrals. Why isn't there something like that happening for offenders that are being released?
Narrator: Aside from wanting the formerly incarcerated to be meaningful contributors to society, there’s another big reason we should be incentivized to support their reentry.
Olivia McCann: There needs to be this plan in place for them to be successful on the outside. We now know that there's a huge correlation between a successful reentry plan and reoffending.
Narrator: Investing in programs and rehabilitation initiatives for parolees would lower future criminal activity. If they are bolstered by a solid plan for how to reenter society, they are more likely to find lawful and productive life paths. If we care about public safety, we should be considering a massive overhaul of how we support formerly incarcerated people.
Part 3: What Actually Happened
Absent a confession, we will probably never know what exactly happened to Mrs. Fuller on October 1st, 1984. James Blue died in prison in the 90s while serving a life sentence for murdering Ammie Davis.
James McMillan is alive and serving out a life sentence in Virgina for another murder eerily similar to Mrs. Fuller’s, as we discussed in episode 7. As I mentioned previously, I wrote to James McMillan in prison and got a response from him, but he stopped writing me back after I told him I was making this podcast.
Over the course of my research, I’ve formed my own theory about what happened on the afternoon of October 1st, 1984. I want to emphasize that this is just my opinion. I don’t pretend to think this is a foolproof theory, I just think it is a much more likely version of what actually happened than the narrative [that] MPD and the U.S. Attorney’s office portrayed at trial. I also want to make it clear that I’m laying this theory out in detail simply because the defendants in the 8th and H case never got the chance to properly do so based on the limited information their lawyers were given.
After purchasing her half-pint of vodka at Family Liquors, I believe Mrs. Fuller walked to the 9th street side of the alley and sat near an alcove to consume her drink. She took off her raincoat and folded it, probably using it as a place to sit. This stop would explain why her blood alcohol content was so high immediately before her death and why her raincoat was found in the alcove folded.
I believe Ammie Davis and James Blue were also present in the alley, possibly using the alcove to take drugs, like they had many times before. Next, I think Blue and Fuller got into some kind of altercation. Maybe he got angry when Mrs. Fuller refused to share her vodka with him or didn’t want to give him some money. When things got physical, Mrs. Fuller fought back with the only weapon she had, her umbrella, which explains why the spokes were bent. Blue was much larger than Fuller, so he easily could have beat her up (as Ammie Davis told police) and forcefully robbed her, taking her small amount of cash and rings. I think it’s possible that James Blue and Ammie Davis were the man and woman seen selling Mrs. Fuller’s ring just a couple hours later outside the liquor store.
After Blue and Davis fled the scene together, I believe James McMillan was passing through the alley. He saw Mrs. Fuller lying on the concrete, battered and vulnerable. Instead of calling for help, McMillan took advantage of the situation to fulfill his sexual urges. I think it was at this point that he punched Mrs. Fuller, knocking her unconscious. This could be the reason no independent witnesses heard any screams for help coming from the alley. It would also explain why she only hand injuries on one side of her face.
I think McMillan dragged her by one leg from the 9th street side of the alley all the way to the garage and closed the door. This would explain several things: why her hair rollers were found on that side of the alley, why she had dragging injuries on only one side of her body, and why her sweater and top had been pushed up by her armpits.
The government tried to sell a robbery motive at trial, but a sexual motive makes a lot more sense here. Most of the accused knew of Mrs. Fuller, and knew she didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have a big incentive to rob her. On the other hand, McMillan had a record of violence against women and a pattern of desire for anal sex, as one of his girlfriends later confirmed. A compulsive sexual motive makes a lot more sense here.
After dragging her into the garage, Mrs. Fuller might have come to momentarily and made a feeble attempt to escape, at which point McMillian stomped down on her side, causing the broken ribs. Sometime during the attack inside the garage, Fuller let out a grunt of anguish. This would explain why Michael Lee Jackson and his friends heard a moan coming from inside the closed garage while passing through the alley around 5:30pm.
I think it’s likely that McMillan found the pole he used to sodomize Mrs. Fuller inside of the garage. Mrs. Fuller’s attacker tucked the object he used to rape her underneath his jacket as he left. This explains why witnesses said they’d seen McMillan running from the scene while appearing to conceal an object under his coat. He didn’t want to leave this crucial piece of evidence behind at the scene. He probably hid the pipe shortly thereafter, because this object was never found.
I also think it’s totally possible that McMillan was the one that made the anonymous tip call to MPD in the early morning hours of October 2nd, 1984. This would make sense because the caller said nothing about murder, only that a group called the 8th and H Crew had been raping women in the alley. I strongly believe McMillan’s main motive was rape, which is why he didn’t mention murder in the anonymous call. Additionally, at this point, only a few hours after he left the scene, McMillan might not have realized yet that Mrs. Fuller had died from her injuries.
Part 4: A Final Option
DC is not a state. It's under federal jurisdiction. This puts DC residents at several disadvantages. One of the most common ones we hear about is DC’s lack of voting representation in Congress. The more than 700,000 people that live in the District don’t have anyone that can vote on their behalf in Congress, which is the very body that has the final say over all of their laws and budget.
A less talked-about disadvantage DC residents face is that they have fewer opportunities to get exonerated through the courts if they are wrongfully convicted of a crime. Don Salzman, one of the attorneys you heard from in the last episode that was involved with the post-conviction proceedings, explains that residents of states have three opportunities to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, while DC residents only have two.
Don Salzman: The one difference with the District of Columbia to really almost every other jurisdiction is that DC, for criminal law purposes, is part of the federal court system. In a case in another state, the clients would have essentially three bites at the apple. They'd have their original trial and appeal and then possibly a request to the Supreme Court. That would be their first bite of the apple. Then the second bite of the apple is a state post-conviction proceeding, which would start in a trial level court. And then there could be appeal if they lose. And then they could again try to go to the Supreme Court. So that's the second bite of the apple. And then there's a federal post-conviction challenge, which sometimes is called federal habeas. And again, it's in front of a trial-level judge, and then there could be an appeal and then a final round of requests to the U.S. Supreme Court. So in that respect, defendants in DC only have two possible bites at the apple, as opposed to three bites of the apple.
Narrator: In addition to having fewer opportunities to overturn a wrongful conviction in the courts, DC residents also have a larger hurdle to clear in order to receive a pardon. Author and former DC public defender Thomas Dybdahl explains:
Thomas Dybdahl: The only option left is a pardon. And in the states, if it were a state crime, it would be the governor. But because this is federal, the pardon would have to come from the president.
Narrator: At this point, this is essentially the last way the men of the 8th and H case could have their names cleared. They’d need to receive a pardon from the current President of the United States of America.
To request a pardon, an individual submits a formal application to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. The Pardon Attorney reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the President on whether to pardon or not. However, the final decision rests solely in the President’s discretion. In fact, a President can pardon a person at any time, regardless of what the Pardon Attorney recommends.
As of the publication of this episode on September 6th, 2023, the lawyers representing the men from the 8th and H case are hard at work preparing to submit an application for a presidential pardon. The paperwork will be submitted sometime in the next several months, which means the Pardon Attorney from the Department of Justice will be considering their application very soon.
This is where you come in. Pardons are highly political. The more public pressure the president gets to grant a pardon, the more likely it is to happen. The actions you take after listening to this podcast can directly affect the likelihood of the men from the 8th and H Case getting their names cleared.
If you want to help, there are three things you can do. I’ll also include all of this in the show notes of this episode.
First, start conversations about the 8th and H case. Discuss it with your friends and family. Write to your member of Congress to make sure they know about it. Post about it on social media and tag the White House. Use the hashtag #TheAlleyPod to join in the conversation with others.
Second, if you’d like to write a letter of support to be included in the pardon application, you can email it to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at 8thandH@exonerate.org.
And third, share this podcast with as many people as you can.
Any reasonable person that listens to this story will see the blatant wrongdoing that’s occurred here. I wholeheartedly believe that if we get enough people to hear about this injustice, a presidential pardon is not only possible, but likely.
If you have questions about any of this, you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 5: Hopes
From the very beginning of this project, our goal was to tell the 8th and H case story in a way that kept the accused men front of mind. Very early on, we asked each of them what they’d like to see happen as a result of this podcast.
Something really stood out to me while asking these questions about their hopes for the future. Not one of the men got aggressively angry about the situation they’re in. None of them yelled or cursed the names of the people that were responsible for locking them up. Which they justifiably could have. I think this speaks volumes of this group’s level of humility and integrity. They don’t want revenge for the awful way the system treated them, they just want the truth to finally see the light of day.
Here’s Clifton Yarborough.
Clifton Yarborough: I hope that they see what the justice system is like. How they can grab so many people for something. And I guess you'll be hearing it from the guys that was accused. And not the reporters speculating.
Narrator: Charles Turner told me he wishes to see public opinion shift on the case.
Charles Turner: I'm hoping that this podcast gives some people some insight into what happened to us, what happened to me. You know, all the guys associated with this case. Because a lot of people really wrongly thought some bad stuff about us. And this podcast hopefully, you know, will shed some light on what really happened as opposed to what they think happened. You know, and maybe some of those people will be angry. Maybe they'll be upset that just happened. Maybe they'll be upset at the system. You know, because it failed us.
Narrator: Russell Overton’s highest hope is that the podcast will help restore his dignity.
Russell Overton: It's about my dignity. My name. My mother didn't raise no killer. I'm not a killer, and I have never, ever killed anyone. And I did 37 years. Now, you tell me. Is that right?
Narrator: Levy Rouse expressed a similar sentiment.
Levy Rouse: I just hope that those who are listening and will hear our testimonies understand that we was eight innocent men that went to prison. And all we ask for is justice. And we want people to understand that police made a mistake and we just want them to correct the mistake. This happens to people every day.
Narrator: And Chris Turner.
Chris Turner: What I hope that this podcast will achieve is to bring light to the true facts. I hope that these facts will get listeners to realize that there is flaws in our judicial system. Because if you could do something this unthinkable, on this level, while everybody was watching, what are you doing in our criminal justice system when nobody's watching those cases?
Narrator: We will probably never know exactly what happened on the day Mrs. Fuller was murdered. We can’t know what beautiful things she could have done with the rest of her life had it not been cut short. We’ll also never know what the men from the 8th and H case could have made of themselves had decades of their lives not been stolen from them.
I do, however, think there is one thing we can all know for certain. Anyone that looks at the complete record of evidence in this case will have at least a reasonable amount of doubt that these men are guilty of murdering Catherine Fuller.
The 8th and H case isn’t like most crime stories Hollywood likes to make movies about. It’s extremely complicated. There is no smoking gun. There is no long-lost DNA sample to prove anyone’s guilt or innocence. And there is no happy ending for the men that collectively spent more that 255 years behind bars…but there still could be if a presidential pardon is granted.
Chris Turner, Charles Turner, Clifton Yarborough, Levy Rouse, Russell Overton, Timothy Catlett, Steve Webb, and Kelvin Smith.
They’re victims of the broken American criminal justice system. And they are still being unfairly punished to this day.
Russell Overton: I done cried so much I can’t even cry no more. My eyes get watery but it don’t come out. Step up and tell the truth. I'm telling you the truth. I'm innocent. So why don’t you tell the truth and say you made a mistake? Nobody's perfect. And you thought you was doing what was right. But you made a big mistake. You locked up innocent people. Rectify your mistake, please.
Maika Moulite: This podcast is dedicated in memory of Catherine Fuller. Our host is Shannon Lynch. Our executive producers are Jason Stewart and Shannon Lynch. This podcast was recorded at New America Studios and Creative Underground. The cover art is by Samantha Webster. Editorial and media support from Jodi Narde, Molly Martin and Joe Wilkes. Audio editing and mixing by Shannon Lynch. Social Media directed by me, Maika Moulite. Script editing and fact checking by Thomas Dybdahl and Charla Freeland. A very special thank you to Patrice Gaines for keeping this story alive for decades and for supporting this project throughout production. Please subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen and be sure to follow New America on all platforms.