A Harford County judge is recommending longtime Republican state’s attorney Joseph Cassilly be reprimanded in his retirement for withholding evidence in a 1981 double-murder case.
In a written conclusion issued last week, Harford Circuit Court Judge Barbara Kerr Howe found the former prosecutor broke the rules for professional conduct and lied about documents that undermined the credibility of an FBI agent on the case.
Cassilly downplayed these doubts about the agent and withheld the documents from defense attorneys, the judge wrote. She concluded that Cassilly, Harford County’s top prosecutor from 1983 to 2019, “displayed a disregard of his professional responsibility as an attorney.”
Her recommendation stems from the so-called Memorial Day Murders, a gruesome double killing in Abingdon nearly 40 years ago. 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 traumatized yet uninjured. Her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, a popular local disc jockey, was shot to death a few miles away on a path to a farm.
Prosecutors tried John Huffington and Deno Kanaras separately for the murders, saying the two friends killed the couple over cocaine and cash. 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.
The Harford state’s attorney prosecuted Huffington for the murders, but the courts twice reversed his conviction to grant new trials. Questions shadowed the prosecution after it was revealed FBI agent Michael P. Malone had a history of testifying falsely, conducting inaccurate analysis of hair samples and making statements that exceeded the limits of scientific testing, according to Howe’s written findings. She cited a 1997 Department of Justice investigation, among other records, that found fault with Malone and examiners at the FBI laboratory. Malone could not be reached for comment.
In November 2017, Cassilly and Huffington struck a deal. 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. He was released from prison after 32 years and two months. Cassilly said he offered Huffington a plea deal rather than retry a 35-year-old murder case.
“While the court’s finding [last week] that there is ‘clear and convincing evidence’ of prosecutorial misconduct by Mr. Cassilly does not undo the grave wrongs and injustices Mr. Huffington suffered, it does provide vindication,” Huffington’s attorney, Chong S. Park, said in a statement.
Huffington said in an interview Tuesday that he would have won his freedom years earlier had Cassilly disclosed the records discrediting Malone.
His complaint launched an investigation by the Attorney Grievance Commission’s bar counsel, which investigates misconduct by attorneys. The bar counsel and Cassilly argued the matter during a three-day trial last month.
Cassilly said he did not call Malone as a witness after questions surfaced about the agent’s credibility. The retired prosecutor said he therefore had no professional responsibility to disclose the reports.
Cassilly retired in 2019 after serving 34 years as the county’s state’s attorney. His younger brothers, Robert and Andrew, also have been involved in Harford County politics for several decades. Bob Cassilly is in his second term as a state senator, after serving as a councilman and mayor of Bel Air and as a Harford County Councilmember. Andrew Cassilly was in the midst of his second term in the House of Delegates when he was tabbed to be Gov. Larry Hogan’s senior adviser in December 2019.
In an interview Tuesday, Cassilly said Huffington was twice convicted on the weight of other evidence, including a fingerprint from the crime scene and his possession of cash from the crime scene. During his misconduct trial last month, Cassilly called former Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy as a witness.
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Cassilly said Murphy affirms his position that the reports were not exculpatory and, therefore, he had no obligation to turn them over.
“Even if you want to disagree with Judge Murphy, there’s a good faith belief that this material is not exculpatory,” Cassilly said. “I feel somewhat happy and validated that I’m not alone.”
Howe, the Harford judge who ruled against Cassilly, notes in her conclusion that the courts sanction a lawyer not as punishment but to protect the public from further misconduct.
“Because the Respondent [Cassilly] is inactive, retired, and has no desire to practice law in the future, the public is not at risk of Respondent committing another violation,” Howe wrote. “This Court therefore recommends that Respondent be given a reprimand.”
The matter now heads to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The state’s highest court is responsible for handing down any punishment to attorneys. The judges may issue the recommended reprimand or take other action. Cassilly said he will take his arguments to the Court of Appeals judges.
Huffington said he feels satisfied no matter what punishment the judges hand down.
“Honestly, I don’t care. What difference does it make?” he said. “My validation is simply that my truth has been heard, received and acknowledged.”