With convictions for notorious 1981 Harford murders vacated, John Huffington could leave prison

John Huffington, then 20, gives an interview from prison to The Record newspaper in December 1982. Convicted twice of a double murder in Harford County on Memorial Day 1981, Huffington recently won a new trial and could soon be released from prison, his lawyer says.
John Huffington, then 20, gives an interview from prison to The Record newspaper in December 1982. Convicted twice of a double murder in Harford County on Memorial Day 1981, Huffington recently won a new trial and could soon be released from prison, his lawyer says. (Archive photo, The Aegis)

Lawyers for John Norman Huffington, a Bel Air man who was twice convicted of killing a young man and young woman in Harford County in 1981, will argue for his release from prison on Thursday while Huffington awaits a new trial, granted this spring on the basis of discredited hair evidence presented at his two earlier trials.

The latest attempt to free Huffington, 50, who has been in prison since 1983 and has maintained his innocence, is opposed by Harford County's top prosecutor and by the family of one of his alleged victims, Diane Becker, who was found stabbed and beaten to death in a camper home in an Abingdon RV park on May 25, 1981, the Memorial Day holiday. Her 4-year-old son was also present but was not harmed.


The body of Ms. Becker's boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, was found a short time later on a secluded path on an Abingdon farm. He had been shot multiple times. Police investigators and prosecutors alleged the two were killed over drugs and money in what became known locally as the Memorial Day Murders.

Huffington was convicted of the murders by juries in Caroline County in 1981 and in Frederick County in 1983, after he appealed and was granted a new trial of the first conviction. He was sentenced to death following the second convictions, but the sentence was later overturned on appeal, after Huffington contended his trial counsel was defective. He was resentenced to two life terms after prosecutors declined to pursue the death penalty any further.


In addition to hair and firearms evidence presented at both trials to establish that Huffington, then 18, was present at each crime scene, the prosecution presented testimony in the Frederick trial from Deno Kanaras, a Huffington friend from Bel Air, who testified he was present and witnessed both killings.

Kanaras, who was 25 at the time of the crimes, was found guilty of first-degree murder in Ms. Becker's death in 1982 but acquitted of the same charge in Mr. Hudson's death. Kanaras served 27 years of a life sentence when he was released from prison in 2008 after a judge in Kent County, where Kanaras was originally convicted, modified the sentence from life to life with all but 35 years suspended.

DNA testing used

On May 1, Frederick County Circuit Court Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. granted Huffington's petition for a writ of actual innocence, vacated the two murder convictions and ordered a new trial.


Dwyer's opinion cited the follow-up use of DNA testing of hair evidence, used by police and prosecutors to place Huffington at the scene of one of the murders, which had shown the hair was not Huffington's. DNA testing was not available when Huffington was convicted, and the microscopic analysis that was used at the trial, as well as the testimony from an FBI expert named Michael Malone, has since been discredited, the judge wrote.

"Due to the substantial weight given to the microscopic hair analysis by the jury, as determined by the State's use of the evidence in its opening and closing argument, as well as the results of the DNA test which conclusively show that the hair found on Diane Becker's blanket was not John Huffington's, there is a significant possibility that the outcome of Petitioner's case may have been different had the state not utilized microscopic hair evidence and Agent Malone's testimony," the opinion concludes.

"It's a bad ruling," Harford State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said of Dwyer's decision to grant Huffington a new trial. Cassilly has appealed the decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and has also asked to Dwyer to revise his own ruling and reinstate the convictions.

The latter motion is scheduled to be argued Thursday in Frederick Circuit Court, along with two motions filed by Huffington's lawyer, one to free him from Patuxent Institution in Howard County while he awaits trial and the other to disallow Cassilly's appeal, according to Ryan N. Malone, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, who represents Huffington and is not related to agent Michael Malone.

"We don't believe he [Cassilly] has a right to appeal," Ryan Malone said Monday, noting that a Maryland law, passed since Huffington's conviction, allows the vacating of convictions if any evidence that was used to convict is later overturned. "We think there was a strong precedent."

More evidence than hair

Cassilly said he was flabbergasted at Dwyer's ruling for a new trial, noting that the Huffington case had been "dragging on," as Huffington and his lawyers had tried numerous maneuvers, including a prior review of the conviction by the state's appellate courts, and had not been successful.

"Forget the one piece of evidence; the rest of the evidence was enough to find him guilty," the Harford state's attorney said.

He also criticized the process by which he said those convicted of murder and other serious crimes, the majority using pro bono lawyers or public defenders, keep their cases in the legal system for years and years and years. Lawyer Ryan Malone acknowledged that his firm, Ropes & Gray, is representing Huffington pro bono, without compensation.

"How they [the lawyers] think they are accomplishing anything for society is beyond me," Cassilly added.

Ms. Becker's brother, William Watson, said the family opposes a new trial and Huffington's release from jail, calling the latter "unfathomable...for us to comprehend." He said he will be present in the courtroom in Frederick on Thursday and expects to be afforded the opportunity to speak when the motion to release Huffington is considered.

"This is very painful for us after 30 years," said Watson, who lives in Havre de Grace and who, like Cassilly, says he believes there was sufficient other evidence to convict Huffington.

Changing laws, standards

In 2009, Maryland's General Assembly passed a law providing for what is known as a "petition for writ of actual innocence," essentially allowing a person convicted of a crime to seek a new trial if they can present new evidence "creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result may have been different, as that standard has been judicially determined," according to the Maryland Annotated Code.

The "writ of actual innocence" law, though designed to protect the rights of the innocent people convicted of crimes, has engendered considerable controversy since its enactment.

Previously, the law allowed defendants to file for new trials within 10 days of a verdict or later if they could show why new evidence couldn't be found within the time limit, according to a 2009 Baltimore Sun article. The new law took away the time limit and softened the requirements petitioners had to meet previously.

The game changing evidence in the Huffington case has existed for some 15 years dating to the late 1990s when the FBI began to have concerns about forensic hair experts who both provided testimony in cases and training for state experts. One such review was made of the testimony and reports of the FBI hair expert Michael Malone that were used in the Huffington trials, according to a series of articles published last year in the Washington Post. The series was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The Post series concluded thousands of criminal cases at the state and local levels "may have relied on exaggerated testimony or false forensic evidence to convict defendants of murder, rape and other felonies" and also noted that in many instances prosecutors were aware of the problem and did not convey the information to defense attorneys.


Evidence, testimony problems


Ryan Malone, Huffington's lawyer, said prosecutors were aware "there were problems" with the hair evidence from the 1999 review of the Huffington case's FBI expert testimony but did not turn the report over to Huffington's lawyers at the time. Malone, whose firm has represented Huffington for 12 years, said he learned about the evidence discrepancy in 2011 "when The Washington Post reported to us about it." They then followed up with the DNA testing of the hairs, he said.

With DNA testing now having proven the hairs in question weren't Huffington's, his lawyer said, "we know his [the FBI agent's] analysis to match head hairs was false." Malone added that in light of the discredited evidence, there is nothing to place Huffington at the scene of either murder other than the eyewitness testimony of Kanaras.

But Dwyer, citing the record of the Frederick County trial, also wrote that Kanaras' testimony "varied greatly from Kanaras' prior statements regarding the case. In fact, Kanaras had given several inconsistent accounts of his and Huffington's activities on May 24 and 25, 1981. The state itself did not believe any of events Kanaras testified to because the state prosecuted and convicted Kanaras for the murder of Diane Becker ..."

The judge's opinion likewise notes that during the trial, prosecutors admitted during a bench conference the eyewitness testimony of Kanaras was such that "a jury of twelve people was unwilling to believe him."

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