FREDERICK – Relatives of a Harford County woman brutally murdered in 1981 were outraged Thursday as they heard a Frederick County judge set a $500,000 bail and schedule a hearing to open a new trial for a man twice convicted of killing her and her boyfriend.
"Congratulations on trampling on victims' rights," William Watson, of Havre de Grace, older brother of victim Diana Watson Becker, called out to members of John Norman Huffington's legal team as they left the Frederick County Courthouse, following a bail and motions hearing before Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr.
Dwyer issued an order May 1 granting the 50-year-old Huffington's petition for writ of actual innocence, as well as vacating his 1983 convictions for the murders of Ms. Becker and her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, and granting him a new trial. The opinion cited since discredited trial evidence as the basis for his decision.
Huffington, who was 18 in 1981, had already been tried twice for the crimes. He was accused of shooting Mr. Hudson to death after the two and a third man, Deno Constantine Kanaras, drove to a farm in Abingdon area to carry out a drug deal.
According to testimony at the earlier trials, Huffington and Kanaras then returned to a camper trailer that Mr. Hudson and Ms. Becker shared in an Abingdon RV park. There, Ms. Becker was stabbed repeatedly and beaten to death while she slept, according to court testimony.
Ms. Becker's then 4-year-old son was not harmed, but he found his mother after the killing, police said at the time.
Kanaras was convicted of Ms. Becker's murder in 1982. His testimony of what happened in the early hours of May 25, 1981, was a major part of the state's case against Huffington at both his trials. Kanaras testified he participated in robbing the camper out of fear Huffington might kill him as well. Sentenced to life in prison, Kanaras, 25 at the time of the killings, was released in 2008 after his lawyers petitioned for a sentence modification that was not opposed by the state.
Dwyer heard arguments Thursday from Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who filed a motion for the judge to revise his prior ruling and reinstate the two convictions. Cassilly said last week he will appeal Dwyer's May ruling to the Court of Special Appeals
Cassilly argued that other pieces of evidence remain, such as one of Huffington's fingerprints found on the jug used to beat Ms. Becker unconscious before she was stabbed, and Huffington's plan to travel to Florida in the days following the murders, while Kanaras was turning himself into police, showed Huffington could still be convicted of the crimes.
Ryan Malone of the Ropes & Gray law firm of Washington, D.C., who is representing Huffington pro bono, argued that Dwyer's earlier ruling should be upheld and his client should be freed after 32 years in prison.
"I think he's entitled to a bond review at this point," Malone said. The judge, who denied Cassilly's motion to revise the earlier judgment, agreed.
Huffington sat at the defense table with his lawyers. His hair was much shorter and slightly grayer than it was in newspaper photographs from 1980s. He still wears glasses, as he did then, and his pronounced chin and sharp nose are still recognizable after more than three decades of incarceration.
He wore a short-sleeved blue denim shirt and dark pants. His hands were free as he sat at the table, listening intently to the proceedings. Two corrections officers stood behind him, one on either side.
Huffington turned around several times to smile at several women sitting behind him, one of whom said later they had become friends with Huffington during his incarceration, while making vendor deliveries to an area where he worked in the prison.
Malone argued that Huffington had been a model prisoner, and taken college classes while behind bars.
Dwyer permitted Huffington to address the court. After conferring with his attorneys, he said he is looking forward to clearing his name.
"For these whole 32-plus years, I have always maintained my innocence from day one," he said.
If Huffington makes bail, he will be required to appear in court in Frederick on Sept. 30 for a pretrial conference. He is being held at the state's Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
The conditions of Huffington's bail require him to live in the Patrick Allison House in Baltimore, which serves men recovering from homelessness, addiction, and who have recently been released from prison. He must also report to Parole and Probation officers at least once a week, according to Dwyer's bond order, "obey all laws" and have no contact with either of the victims' families.
Dwyer ordered the new trial on the grounds that the forensic evidence used to convict him twice had been discredited after a Department of Justice review in the 1990s called the testimony of many FBI crime analysts into question, testimony which had won many convictions in criminal trials around the country.
Huffington was convicted in Caroline County in 1981 and re-convicted in Frederick in 1983 in a jury trial.
Hair evidence used to place Huffington in the camper was discredited after DNA testing ordered last year by Huffington's lawyers proved the hair wasn't Huffington's.
Dwyer's May opinion stated hair finding in itself was sufficient to vacate the convictions and grant a new trial under the state's 2009 Writ of Actual Innocence Statute; however, the judge also noted one of the ballistics analysis present at the trials has likewise since been discredited. The opinion also points out prosecutors at the second trial had expressed concern about the veracity of Kanaras' testimony.
"It's like one of those Twilight Zone [episodes]," Cassilly told Watson as they left the courtroom.
Watson, 57, attended Thursday's hearing with his brother Alan, age 58, and sister Laura, 44, and other family and friends. He had hoped to speak, but the request was denied after Dwyer sustained Malone's objection that it was not a post-conviction hearing and thus not the correct venue for a victim impact statement.
The family was not notified beforehand of the post conviction hearing in April, Watson said earlier this week. He also said his sister's son was adopted by their parents after her death. Now 35 and living in another state, he has two children of his own, his sister's grandchildren, Watson said.
Watson was overcome with emotion when speaking about his sister, who had just turned 21 when she was murdered.
"Diana was a loving sister, a loving daughter and mother," he said following the hearing.
He noted many people rediscover their closeness with their families as they age out of their late teens and early 20s, and Ms. Becker was just discovering those bonds with her family.
"I think it was coming full circle for her," he said.