For the past several days, after I was unduly disbarred for supposedly lying about the existence information that undermined the credibility of an FBI agent (“Retired Harford State’s Attorney Cassilly disbarred over handling of ‘Memorial Day Murders,” Oct. 22), I have repeated the following statement: In my 41 years as a prosecutor, I have faithfully and honestly worked to serve and protect the citizens of Harford County.
I am writing this account of the 1981 case from my perspective for those citizens who elected me to serve as their state’s attorney.
On Memorial Day 1981, the body of Diane Becker, 21, was found in her motor home’s bed by her 4-year-old son. She had been stabbed more than 30 times, and her head was almost severed from her body. About 10 miles away, the body of her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, was found shot, with shell casings by the body. Witnesses identified John Norman Huffington and Deno Kanaras as two men who were with the victims at 2:45 a.m. that same morning.
Two days after the killings, Kanaras met with deputies and said that Huffington had murdered both victims. He then led deputies to where a large bottle, a purse, a revolver and a knife were located.
The two criminals had lured Hudson from the motor home where Huffington shot him, emptied the shell casings, reloaded, and shot him twice in the head. The FBI determined that the recovered revolver was the gun used in the murder. A witness testified that he had seen the revolver in Huffington’s possession three weeks before the murder and described the unusual label on the revolver.
The two criminals returned to the motor home. Huffington took the large bottle containing coins and struck Becker while she slept, fracturing her skull. Huffington then took the knife and viciously stabbed her. The criminals then stole a large wad of cash, the victim’s purse, took the murder weapons and fled. They divided the cash and Huffington received $980, all according to Kanaras.
The FBI forensic investigation of the bottle found that it was smeared with Becker’s blood and contained Huffington’s index fingerprint in a position showing the bottle was being held like a club.
In the statement that Huffington gave to deputies, he admitted to being with Kanaras at the victims’ motor home around 3 a.m. and that he was with Kanaras until late that morning. Huffington said he went to Pimilico Racetrack that afternoon and lost about $500. Deputies found that on that same day, Huffington paid his rent of $285 and when he was arrested, he had $200 on him. This money added up exactly to the $980 dollars he had stolen from the people he had murdered.
During the trial in 1983, an FBI examiner testified that hairs recovered from Becker’s clothing were microscopically identical to Huffington’s. In 1997, the FBI issued a report saying that the examiner had testified falsely in a 1986 Florida case.
In 1999, the FBI issued a report about the examiner’s work in the Huffington case. The report criticized his report writing because his notes, that he used to prepare his report from, were illegible and used abbreviations and other faults. They commented they could not tell from the notes how he did the test. The review found his testimony was consistent with his written report but inconsistent with his notes, which they could not read or understand.
The FBI report did not say that the examiner lied, testified falsely or made a mistake in what he testified to in the Huffington case. I discarded the report and turned back to the case of another double murder involving a mother and daughter that I was prosecuting at that moment.
Eleven years later, 2010, a Washington law firm that prides itself with getting murderers out of prison raised the issue of the hair examiner in court. Once in writing and twice before a judge, I made the statement that there was no evidence the examiner’s testimony was not correct. In 2012, the FBI reexamined the original hair samples in the case and found them to be microscopically identical, but DNA testing, which was not available in 1981, showed it was not Huffington’s hair.
In 2017, during a guilty-plea hearing, after reviewing all of this evidence, minus the FBI hair analysis, a judge found Huffington guilty of first-degree murder of both victims. This was the third time Huffington had been convicted of the same crimes.
My statements about this case are true, then and now. It is a sad day for law enforcement when a convicted murderer can use the system to seek revenge because the prosecutor did not give up and let him get away with murder. When it comes to criminals, we craft a fair penalty; when it comes to prosecutors, there is no such consideration given.
Joseph I. Cassilly is the former Harford County state’s attorney. The Bel Air Republican served 36 years as the county’s top prosecutor and retired in 2019.