FREDERICK — John Norman Huffington will be a free man on Jan. 1, 2018, more than 36 years after he was charged with committing a 1981 double murder in Harford County.
A Frederick County Circuit Court judge sentenced Huffington Thursday to the time he already served in prison. Judge Theresa M. Adams also placed him on probation through Dec. 31.
She told the defendant he will be a free man, albeit one with two murder convictions.
Huffington has always maintained his innocence and did so again in court Thursday, saying he would “stand here today representing the truth, and my truth.”
Adams said her ruling brings a more than 30-year legal saga to an end, but it does not end the grief of the families of the victims, Diana Becker and her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson.
Huffington, 55, who lived in Bel Air, spent about 30 years in prison after he was twice convicted by juries for the May 25, 1981 murders. He faced the death penalty after both convictions, but his sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
“All of the people involved in this tragedy deserve peace of mind, and Diana [Becker] and Joe Hudson deserve to be heard,” Adams said.
Police found Ms. Becker stabbed and beaten to death in her camper home in an Abingdon RV park, and Mr. Hudson was found shot to death a few miles away on an Abingdon farm path.
Drugs and money were the motive, police and prosecutors have said over the years.
Ms. Becker’s surviving family members, including her brother, William Watson, of Havre de Grace and sister, Laura Watson, of South Carolina, read victim impact statements on their behalf as well as statements from their parents, Alan Watson Sr. and Virginia Watson and Ms. Becker’s son, Daniel, who was 4 years old when his mother was killed.
“My life ended at age 4,” Daniel Watson, now a 41-year-old husband and father of three living in South Carolina, said in his statement read by his aunt, Laura.
He was not present Thursday, as his third child was born recently, and he must tend to his wife as she recovers from surgery, Laura Watson said.
Laura Watson, now 49, was 12 years old when her sister was murdered.
Daniel Watson said his statement that he found his mother in bed the morning after she was attacked. He tried to wake her up but could not. He was in the motor home when police arrived.
“I remember blood everywhere, but I didn’t know what to make of it,” he stated. “I remember screaming and crying, and everything fades to black.”
Daniel Watson recalled his struggles while growing up without his mother and the knowledge that “death takes everything you love away from you.”
Bill Watson read his parents’ statement, since they were not present. He said it would be too challenging for them to make the trip to Frederick, plus handle the emotion of the case.
The Watsons expressed their grief over Ms. Becker’s sudden, violent death just days after she turned 21 and their frustration with a Maryland justice system that has, in their view, favored the accused over the victims and their families.
“What happened to Diana and my family is the worst example of what a civilized society should offer its inhabitants,” Bill Watson, 61, said.
Alan and Virginia Watson said, in their statement, the idea that the justice system would rule in Huffington’s favor after he was convicted of “one of the most heinous crimes in Harford County and Maryland’s history is beyond our imagination.”
Bill Watson said, in his statement, that his father had conducted a “unilateral” investigation of his daughter’s murder, which led him to a Maryland State Police undercover narcotics investigator who had been looking into the cocaine trade in Harford County and getting information from Diana Becker.
Watson said police raided a local restaurant, where cocaine had been sold, two weeks before the murders.
“Two weeks later, Diana was dead and mutilated in a manner consistent with that done to ‘snitches,’” he read.
No one from Mr. Hudson’s family gave a statement or made their presence known in the courtroom. Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly told the judge that Mr. Hudson’s parents have died and he has tried but failed to locate a half brother.
Cassilly said he had been preparing to retry Huffington. A trial was finally set for February following Huffington’s release from prison in 2013 after now-retired Frederick Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. granted a petition for writ of actual innocence.
Cassilly said the challenges of trying a three-decade-old case led him to move forward with Huffington’s Alford plea and agree to the sentence of time served. He acknowledged that decision upset the Watson family.
“I still think that this plea was the right thing, given the circumstances . . . I apologize to the family for the pain that I have, in part, inflicted upon you,” he said.
Adams accepted an Alford plea from Huffington on Nov. 9. She sentenced him Thursday to life in prison on two charges of first-degree murder — one for each victim — but gave him credit for time served and suspended the remainder of his sentence.
An Alford plea means a defendant maintains his or her innocence but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to convict them. Cassilly presented in detail the evidence against Huffington and his co-defendant, Deno Kanaras during the Nov. 9 plea hearing.
Kanaras was convicted of killing Ms. Becker and acquitted in Mr. Hudson’s death. He was released from prison in 2008, after petitioning for a sentence modification that Cassilly did not oppose and which the Watson family also criticized.
“I find beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of two gruesome and horrendous murders,” Adams told Huffington Thursday.
But the judge also acknowledged the “restorative” work Huffington has done while in prison and since his release.
Attorney Chong S. Park, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Ropes & Gray that has represented Huffington since 1987, said Huffington earned a bachelor’s degree while in prison and was recognized as a model inmate by corrections officials.
Park said Huffington, who is now the director of workforce development for the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore, has done extensive work since his release in the areas of community service, conflict resolution and helping others adjust to post-prison life.
Park said he and his fellow attorneys “are constantly in awe for all the good work [Huffington] does in the community.”
Huffington’s work has been recognized by Baltimore City leaders, including State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, according to Park.
“On Jan. 1, 2018, the world will be a better place with John Huffington as a free man in it,” Park said.
Huffington, in his statement to the judge, said he has been offered deals in the past for early release if he admitted guilt.
“I can’t say that I did this [crime], because I didn’t do this,” he said, referring to making a guilty plea.
He said “my heart goes out” to the families of the victims.
Huffington said he wrestled with whether or not to offer an Alford plea, but decided it was necessary.
“It’s important to me that I reclaim my life,” he said.
Park tried to challenge the state’s evidence against his client — the FBI’s analysis of hair evidence at the scene and on Huffington’s clothing was discredited after a Department of Justice review in the 1990s.
Cassilly strongly objected twice, arguing that challenging evidence was not appropriate for a sentencing hearing, and Bill Watson left the courtroom in disgust.
Adams upheld Cassilly’s objections, and she said she “takes exception” to Park’s contention that Huffington’s prior trials were not run properly.
Adams said she was a law clerk for the late Frederick Circuit Judge William W. Wenner, who presided over Huffington’s second trial in 1983, where a jury upheld his conviction and death sentence.
Adams said Judge Wenner “ensured that every aspect of that trial was fair and legal.”