The passage of time has a way of obscuring the truth, and so it has been with the criminal case of the State of Maryland versus John Norman Huffington.
Huffington, then 18, was accused of shooting to death Joseph Hudson and then stabbing and beating to death Mr. Hudson’s girlfriend, Diane Becker, on Memorial Day 1981. He had help. Dino Kanaras, who like Huffington lived in Bel Air, was also charged in the two murders and found guilty of killing Ms. Becker.
Juries in two counties convicted Huffington of first-degree murder in both cases and one sentenced him to die. Police and prosecutors said the murders stemmed from a drug debt owned by Mr. Hudson to Huffington. Ms Becker was killed in the motor home the couple shared when Huffington and Kanaras went looking for money after Mr. Hudson was shot to death on a farm in Abingdon, according to police investigators.
What has transpired in the intervening 36 years is a classic case of how American justice favors the accused at the expense of their victims and, in killings, the families and other loved ones who survive them.
Kanaras, then 25, testified against Huffington. He claimed he only stabbed Ms. Becker because Huffington, who still possessed the gun that killed Mr. Hudson, had threatened him. Kanaras got life in prison for his part.
Both men came from well-to-do Harford County families. Huffington said in a newspaper interview after his first convictions were voided on legal technicalities and a second trial was ordered, that he had been into the Bel Air drug scene but was not a killer. He insisted he did not murder Mr. Hudson or Ms. Becker.
Convicted a second time and sentenced to die, Huffington eventually succeeded in having his sentence modified to life in prison. Kanaras would eventually use Maryland’s laws permitting convicted criminals to seek sentence modifications to win his release from prison in 2008. Lawyers for Huffington later filed a challenge to FBI hair evidence presented at his trials and, in 2013, a Frederick County judge ruled the hair evidence was discredited and granted Huffington a new trial. He was subsequently released from prison on $500,000 bond.
Harford State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who was a deputy prosecutor when the murders were committed, was elected chief prosecutor about 18 months later. He’s lived with what became to be called the Memorial Day Murders case from the beginning and through all the subsequent legal machinations by both defendants. It all appears to have finally ended last Thursday when Huffington was allowed to leave court in Frederick County a free man.
Under a deal agreed to among Huffington, his lawyers and Cassilly, Huffington entered an Alford plea to the murders, not admitting guilt but conceding if he went to trial there was sufficient evidence to convict him. The Alford plea is essentially a way out for both sides, as Cassilly himself conceded. Although the Harford prosecutor insisted there was other physical evidence still available to win a conviction, there were no credible witnesses – i.e. Kanaras – and police investigators were either dead or long retired.
Frederick Circuit Court Judge Theresa M. Adams, who accepted Huffington’s plea, said: “I find beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of two gruesome and horrendous murders.” In keeping to the plea deal Huffington made, however, she sentenced him to life for each of the murders then reduced that to the time Huffington had already served in prison.
Ms. Becker’s surviving family, which includes a brother and sister, have opposed everything that has been done by Huffington and Kanaras to win their freedom. Cassilly said last week he had not been able to contact family of Mr. Hudson. Ms. Becker had a 4-year-old son, Daniel, who was in their home when his mother was killed. He is now 41 and provided a statement, read in court last week by his sister, about that horrible day 36 years ago and its impact on his life.
To believe the claims of Huffington and Kanaras, one or both of them are responsible for the murders. Huffington’s protests of innocence notwithstanding, there was never a roving band of hippies or drifting serial killer defense mounted in this case. One or both of them did it.
The Memorial Day Murders case shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that life sentences for taking another person or person’s life frequently turn out to be anything but life, particularly in the State of Maryland.
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As for the sentences our consciences may choose to impose, those never end.