Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday declared John Norman Huffington, a Harford County man who was wrongfully convicted in an infamous 1981 double murder, innocent.
Hogan, a Republican with days left in his second term, cited prosecutorial misconduct on the part of disgraced former Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly in finding that Huffington’s convictions were in error and granting a full innocence pardon — an order that amounts to exoneration.
At a news conference Friday afternoon with his lawyers following Hogan’s pardon, Huffington thanked Hogan for clearing his family’s name.
“I have fought for over 40 years for this day and I feel a deep sense of closure and vindication,” Huffington said. “This pardon officially acknowledges that I was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for crimes I never committed.”
Huffington, 60, served 32 years in prison on two life sentences before his release from Patuxent Institution in 2013. He maintained his innocence throughout the decades and asked for a pardon in 2021.
Huffington said he’d seek compensation from the state for wrongful incarceration now that he is eligible because of the pardon.
Hogan declined through a spokesman to comment.
Attorney Chong Park, of Washington, D.C.-based Ropes & Gray, has represented Huffington since 1987. Park and Huffington credited the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic, led by public defender Erica Suter, for guiding them through the pardon process.
“This is justice. Granting John a full innocence pardon was the right thing to do, and we are elated by the governor’s decision,” Park said. “John suffered grave injustices. He was wrongfully convicted, put on death row, and subject to outrageous prosecutorial misconduct.”
Huffington was twice convicted of the 1981 killings referred to as the “Memorial Day Murders.” Diane Becker, 21, was beaten and stabbed to death May 25 in her recreational vehicle in Abingdon. Her 4-year-old son was in the camper, but was unharmed. Joseph Hudson, Becker’s boyfriend, was fatally shot and discovered on a secluded farm path a few miles away. Police said at the time the pair were killed over cocaine and cash.
The prosecution hinged on since-discredited testimony that hairs found at the murder scene matched Huffington, who was 18 at the time.
Huffington appealed his first conviction in 1981 and was tried again in 1983. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to death, which prosecutors later commuted to two life terms.
The hair evidence from Becker’s blanket and clothing was tested using a discredited method called “microscopic analysis.” In both trials, FBI agent Michael P. Malone testified the hair found at the scene was microscopically identical to Huffington’s — a 99.9% match.
DNA testing would not become available for five more years.
The FBI reviewed Huffington’s case in 1991 and told prosecutors about the problematic forensic evidence. Cassilly withheld the information from Huffington’s attorneys.
In 1997, the Department of Justice determined Malone had a record of testifying falsely, flubbing hair sample analysis and making claims that exceeded the scope of available scientific testing.
A Frederick County judge vacated Huffington’s convictions and ordered a new trial in 2013 after Huffington presented new evidence using DNA testing that was not available during his earlier trials. Huffington asked for a new trial in a petition called a writ of actual innocence. When the hair evidence was tested for DNA more than 30 years later, the results showed it was not Huffington’s hair.
The Supreme Court of Maryland, then called the Maryland Court of Appeals, unanimously voted to disbar Cassilly in 2021. The court found he withheld exculpatory evidence in the 1981 double murder and lied about in the following years. A Republican who served 36 years as Harford County’s top prosecutor, Cassilly had retired in 2019.
In an op-ed in the The Aegis days after he was disbarred, Cassilly wrote that, “In my 41 years as a prosecutor, I have faithfully and honestly worked to serve and protect the citizens of Harford County.” He gave his account of the case, including saying the FBI’s 1999 report “did not say that the examiner lied, testified falsely or made a mistake in what he testified to in the Huffington case.”
Reached Friday night for comment, Cassilly called the pardon “an abomination of justice.”
Huffington maintains he would have won his freedom years earlier had Cassilly disclosed the records.
A second suspect and key witness, Deno Kanaras, testified at Huffington’s two trials that they were present for Becker’s murder. Kanaras, whose testimony was considered inconsistent, was also convicted of first-degree murder. He was acquitted in Hudson’s death. Kanaras spent 27 years in prison until his sentence was modified.
Without the hair evidence, the case hinged on Kanaras’ testimony linking Huffington to the murders.
Rather than go to trial for a third time on a 30-year-old case, Cassilly and Huffington agreed on an Alford plea in 2017 that suspended the remainder of his life sentence. The plea allowed Huffington to maintain his innocence but acknowledge there was enough evidence to convict.
Huffington said in his pitch to Hogan for a pardon that he felt Cassilly pressured him to accept the deal, resulting in Huffington’s third murder conviction.