John Norman Huffington, who was twice convicted of murdering two people in Abingdon in 1981, but had those convictions overturned and was granted a new trial, entered Alford pleas to the crimes in Frederick County Circuit Court Thursday afternoon.
A defendant offers an Alford plea when they acknowledge the state has enough evidence for a conviction, but they still maintain their innocence.
Huffington, who lived in Bel Air, was convicted twice of first-degree murder in the May 1981 deaths of Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson. The convictions came in two jury trials, one in Caroline County in 1981, from which he was later granted a new trial, and the other in Frederick County in 1983.
Before Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Theresa M. Adams on Thursday, Huffington, 55, offered pleas to first-degree murder and armed robbery one of the deaths and pleas to first-degree murder and burglary in the second.
The judge accepted his plea and set a sentencing date for Dec. 7 in her court.
He’s expected to be sentenced to the time he served in prison, 32 years, and released, according to Huffington’s attorneys and the prosecution.
Relatives of the victims will be able to testify during the sentencing hearing, Adams said.
Huffington wore a gray sport coat, dark pants and a tie at the defense table. He was flanked by attorneys Eric Schaffer, of Frederick, and Jonathan Ference-Burke and Chong Park, of the Ropes & Gray law firm of Washington, D.C.
Ropes & Gray has represented Huffington, who has always maintained his innocence, since 1987.
“We were pleased to be standing with Mr. Huffington as he maintains his innocence and looks to put this case behind him and move on with his life,” Ference-Burke said after the hearing.
Huffington declined to comment but issued a prepared statement through his attorneys, which read in part: “Even though I am innocent, the state has refused to recognize my innocence. Through today’s agreement, they’ve agreed to finally give up their persuit of the wrong guy. I’m the wrong guy.”
Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who presented the state’s evidence against Huffington during the hearing, conceded in an interview earlier in the day that the plea deal means Huffington, who had served more than 30 years in prison before winning a new trial – and his release on bail in 2013, will soon be free.
“This case has a history of being screwed up by the courts over time,” the Harford prosecutor said. “We’ve convicted this guy twice in front of two different juries, and we still have judges saying there’s something not right.”
“We are not really happy with this, because he’s maintaining actual innocence,” Ms. Becker’s brother, Bill Watson, of Havre de Grace, had said Wednesday of the latest turn in the case.
“He [Huffington] still stood accused of the crimes, and he could be retried,” said Watson, who attended Thursday’s hearing.
The case, which the Harford County media named the “Memorial Day Murders,” because the killings occurred on that holiday, is considered among the most sensational acts of violence to occur during what was a particularly violent decade for the county.
Ms. Becker, who had a son who was 4 years old at the time, was found beaten and stabbed to death in a trailer in an Abindgon RV park on May 25, 1981.
Mr. Hudson, her boyfriend and a popular local disc jockey, was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds on the path to an Abingdon farm. Ms. Becker’s son was not harmed.
Police and prosecutors said the couple was killed in a dispute related to drugs and money.
Huffington’s co-defendant, Deno Kanaras, was convicted of first-degree murder in Ms. Becker’s death but acquitted in Mr. Hudson’s death.
Kanaras, who had been friends with Huffington and was a key witness for the state’s case against Huffington, was released from prison in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence. He successfully sought and received a sentence modification, which also has been criticized by Ms. Becker’s family.
Huffington was sentenced to death after the second trial, but that was commuted to life in prison after he appealed. Cassilly, who was an assistant prosecutor when the crimes occurred, became the county’s chief prosecutor in early 1983 and has dealt with the case for most of his career. He is expected to retire when his ninth term ends late next year.
Since his first trial, Huffington has filed multiple appeals at the state and federal levels, challenging the state’s case against him. In May 2013, Frederick County Circuit Court Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr., who has since retired from the bench, granted Huffington’s petition for a writ of actual innocence, which vacated the murder convictions and cleared the way for a new trial.
That ruling came after Huffington’s lawyers presented DNA evidence that called into question hair evidence the police and prosecutors presented at the trials to link Huffington to the Becker crime scene.
The state's Writ of Actual Innocence statute, passed in 2009, allows people convicted of crimes to obtain a new trial, if they can produce evidence that would create a different outcome.
Dwyer had set a $500,000 bail, or $250,000 for each murder case, during a hearing in Frederick in July 2013. Huffington posted bond and was released about a week later, after being in prison 32 years. He had initially lived in a Baltimore halfway house, and his case was included in a 2014 documentary about DNA evidence that aired on the now-defunct Al Jazeera America cable network.
Watson said he received a letter from Cassilly Oct. 21 informing him that Huffington wanted to offer an Alford plea and that his attorneys would be seeking a sentence of time already served in prison.
The letter, a copy of which Watson provided to The Aegis, pointed out the logistical challenges of trying a case in which several witnesses have died and others, including Kanaras, claim diminished mental capacity.
Watson said he asked Cassilly for time to consult with his parents and siblings before the state accepts the plea, but he got a text message from the state’s attorney while on the phone with his sister that Cassilly would accept it.
Cassilly said Thursday there would be no guarantee Huffington would go back to prison even if he won a conviction, or if he did go back to jail, the sentence wouldn’t be overturned by an appeals court.
“You need to say, ‘What are we going to get from continuing to pursue this case,’ and what point in time do you say, ‘This is the best outcome I can hope for’ and move on?” Cassilly said.
Watson’s family hired an attorney, Christopher C. Quasebarth, of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, who filed an objection to the Alford pleas. The judge accepted the objection, saying, “I will make sure it is in the file.”
Watson said his family wanted the objection to be part of the official case record.
“For a lot of people it’s a tired old case, but it’s not a tired old case as far as we’re concerned,” he said.