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Man seeks pardon from Maryland Gov. Hogan after Harford County state’s attorney who prosecuted him is disbarred

After more than 30 years in prison, 10 of them on death row, John Norman Huffington has been free from the confines of a cell for about eight years.

The prosecutor who put Huffington in jail, retired Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, was disbarred Friday after Maryland’s highest court agreed he lied about critical evidence in the case.

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Now, Huffington is asking Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to clear his name. Though a pardon wouldn’t wipe from his record a conviction associated with the so-called Memorial Day Murders of 1981, Huffington said it would go a long way to mitigate the injustice he experienced.

“It’s my family name. Until it’s taken from you, you don’t fully understand the value of that: It’s who you are,” said Huffington, flanked by his lawyer at a conference table in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Ropes & Gray as they announced Tuesday that they took the unusual step of sending his petition for a pardon directly to the Republican governor’s office.

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John Huffington, center, leaves the Frederick County courthouse in December 2017 after being sentenced to time served for a 1981 double murder in Harford County.
John Huffington, center, leaves the Frederick County courthouse in December 2017 after being sentenced to time served for a 1981 double murder in Harford County. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“I go through life now constantly having to explain myself,” continued Huffington, 59. “It’s not how I want to define my life; it’s not how it should be defined. It’s not appropriate I carry convictions for crimes I did not commit.”

It’s unclear whether Huffington is eligible for compensation for the wrongly convicted in Maryland, according to his attorney, Chong S. Park. He said they are exploring all options.

The move follows a unanimous Maryland Court of Appeals opinion disbarring Cassilly for withholding documents undermining the credibility of an FBI agent. A 1997 Department of Justice probe found agent Michael P. Malone had a history of testifying falsely, conducting inaccurate analysis of hair samples and making claims that exceeded the scope of scientific testing.

Park on Tuesday described Malone’s testimony that hairs found at the murder scene were a 99.9% match to Huffington as “the crucial, key piece of evidence the prosecutor used to convict.” His analysis turned out to be wrong, and the courts twice reversed Huffington’s convictions and granted new trials.

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Roughly 40 years ago, police found Diane Becker, 21, stabbed and beaten to death with a bottle in her home in an Abingdon RV park and her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, gunned down a few miles away on a path to a farm. Prosecutors said Huffington and his friend Deno Kanaras killed the couple over cocaine and cash.

A jury had convicted Kanaras of felony murder and a judge sentenced him to life in prison. Kanaras testified in the prosecution of Huffington and he was released after 27 years, in 2008.

John Huffington, then 20, gives an interview from prison in December 1982.
John Huffington, then 20, gives an interview from prison in December 1982. (Archive photo, The Aegis)

Huffington was released from prison in 2013 after 32 years and two months behind bars. He struck a deal with Cassilly in November 2017, submitting an Alford plea to two murder counts in exchange for time served. The plea allowed Huffington to maintain his innocence but acknowledge that there was enough evidence to convict. On Tuesday, Huffington said he had felt pressured to enter the plea.

“It came down to what was ultimately the right conclusion, which was that I would not have gotten a fair trial,” Huffington said. “Cassilly would’ve kept his pattern of abuse of the system.”

His attorney, Park, read from a letter Cassilly sent Huffington’s legal team.

“I am willing to risk not getting a conviction. What are co-counsel planning to tell him when the deputies put the cuffs back on him and return him to [Department of Corrections]. Let me know,” the letter read.

For his part, Cassilly, who was the elected prosecutor in Harford County for 36 years, denies wrongdoing and maintains Huffington is responsible for the murders based on other evidence not related to the troubled hair-fiber analysis.

“Granting him a pardon would be the most obscene miscarriage of justice I could imagine,” Cassilly said.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Michael Ricci, spokesman for Hogan, said the governor’s office had not yet received Huffington’s petition. Petitions are reviewed by the parole commission and then the Office of Legal Counsel on a rolling basis, he added.

Huffington said Cassilly “perpetuated a lie for 40 years.” He and Park, who opted to go straight to the governor rather than through the Maryland Parole Commission, hope Hogan acts “expeditiously.”

“In large part, it’s [a] hugely symbolic measure for the highest state official to acknowledge that Mr. Huffington was wrongly convicted and that everything he’s been telling folks for over 40 years is in fact correct,” Park told The Baltimore Sun. “I think a pardon would go a long way and be a significant step toward finally getting some vindication.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Christine Condon contributed to this article.

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