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Maryland panel claims ex-Harford prosecutor Cassilly withheld evidence in 1981 double murder, seeks discipline

Former Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly.
Former Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission has asked the courts to discipline former Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly for allegedly withholding evidence related to the so-called Memorial Day Murders, a gruesome double killing in Abingdon nearly 40 years ago.

The case has been the subject of a decades-long legal fight. Cassilly twice prosecuted John Norman Huffington for the murders; the courts twice reversed his conviction to grant new trials. In November 2017, the two men agreed to a plea deal. Huffington was released for time served: 32 years, two months.

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Now, the Attorney Grievance Commission’s bar counsel — which investigates complaints against attorneys — alleges Cassilly intentionally suppressed reports and letters that found fault with a portion of the forensic evidence. He retired in January 2019 after 36 years as state’s attorney for Harford County.

In a phone call Monday, he disputed the allegations and downplayed the significance of these records.

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“It was irrelevant and did not bear on the overwhelming evidence against this guy,” Cassilly said. “Why the Attorney Grievance Commission wants to waste their time pursuing me on this is absolutely a complete puzzle to me. ... I haven’t practiced law in two years. I’m retired. What do they want?"

Huffington, meanwhile, said he would have gained his freedom years earlier had the records come to light. In November 2018, he filed a complaint against Cassilly to launch the commission’s investigation.

“My case has concluded; it’s not even about that,” Huffington said. “It’s about the truth, and it’s about maintaining the integrity of our system."

Their legal fight traces back to the early morning hours of Memorial Day 1981. Police found Diane Becker, 21, stabbed and beaten to death with a bottle in her camper home in an Abingdon RV park. They found her 4-year-old son in the camper too, traumatized but unhurt. Police found her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, a popular local disc jockey, shot to death a few miles away on a path to a farm.

Prosecutors tried Huffington and an accomplice, Deno Kanaras, separately for the murders, saying the two friends killed the couple over cocaine and money. A jury convicted Kanaras of felony murder in Becker’s death. He was released from prison in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence.

Kanaras was a key witness in the prosecution of Huffington. A jury convicted Huffington of two counts of felony murder; he was sentenced to death. He won a new trial in December 1982 on arguments that prosecutors presented inadmissible evidence. During his retrial, FBI agent Michael P. Malone testified that hair samples recovered from Becker’s camper matched Huffington. He was again convicted of two counts of felony murder and, ultimately, sentenced to life in prison.

Cassilly said the evidence went beyond the hair match to include Huffington’s fingerprint on the bottle and $980 in cash taken in the murders.

“Even without Malone’s testimony," Cassilly said, “the evidence against this guy was overwhelming.”

Over the ensuing years, a series of reports by the FBI and an independent analyst found fault with Malone’s testimony, according to the complaint by the attorney grievance commission.

In 1999, the Justice Department hired a hair and fiber analyst who reviewed Malone’s work in various cases and found mixed results. The analyst was unable to conclude that Malone performed his tests in a scientifically acceptable manner, the bar counsel wrote.

These records were not turned over to Huffington or his lawyers, they wrote. Further, they alleged, Cassilly told the courts there were no problems with Malone’s testimony.

Huffington obtained one of the reports from a reporter at The Washington Post. He sought a new trial. By 2013, the FBI was saying the hair samples did not match him, the attorneys wrote.

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The FBI declined a request for comment this week from The Baltimore Sun.

Cassilly said he offered Huffington a plea deal rather than retry a 35-year-old case. Huffington submitted an Alford plea to two counts of murder in exchange for time served. With an Alford plea, a defendant maintains his innocence but acknowledges there’s enough evidence to convict.

In their petition, the Attorney Grievance Commission lawyers accuse Cassilly of misconduct for failing to disclose the reports. They asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to discipline or fine the retired prosecutor, but left any punishment up to the courts.

Cassilly said he’s mystified: “I’m still trying to figure out what the bar counsel is trying to accomplish.”

The matter could be resolved at trial.

“Too often we see this in cases," Huffington said, "where prosecutors get away with these kinds of things. They are not challenged. They are not scrutinized. I’m grateful that happened in this case.”

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