On November 2, 1975, Johnnie Battle, a black male, shot a member of the Pagans, an all-white biker gang, outside a supper club in Washington, D.C. In retaliation for the shooting, four gang members chased down Battle, stabbed him to death, and fled the scene.
Joseph Sousa, a member of the Pagans, had already fled the scene in his car upon hearing the initial shots from Battle’s gun. While driving away from the scene of the crime, Sousa collected fellow gang members Joseph Eastridge
, Michael Damien
, and Steve Jones. Eastridge and Damien were clean, having fled the scene on foot; Jones, one of the real murderers, was covered in blood.
Police officers found the group leaving the area of the crime and immediately identified them as suspects. In addition to their gang affiliation and the blood on Jones, officers found three knives in Sousa’s car. Though all of the knives were clean, the entire group was arrested and each man was charged with first degree murder.
The four gang members were tried together. Prosecutors introduced the knives the officers had discovered in Sousa’s car as well as evidence that the blood on Jones could have belonged to Battle.
In addition to the physical evidence, prosecutors called several eyewitnesses and Sousa’s ex-lover to testify. The eyewitnesses could place Sousa, Damien, and Eastridge at the scene of the crime, but none could affirmatively say that any of them had killed Battle.
Sousa’s ex-lover, the prosecution’s star witness, sealed the group’s fate when she testified that Eastridge and Sousa had confessed to the murder multiple times. All four were convicted on January 6, 1975, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
The prosecution’s case against Sousa, Eastridge, and Damien slowly unraveled in the decades after the sentencing.
The men's defense was first championed by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that works to free the wrongly conviction.
During a five-year investigation, Centurion began to uncover new witnesses who identified the real killers (other than Jones). Their investigation also uncovered evidence that prosecutors withheld potential exculpatory evidence and the ex-lover’s testimony was found to be entirely falsified – a product of her obsessive desire for vengeance against Sousa in the wake of their separation.
The exculpatory evidence, however, had almost no effect on the amount of time any of the three innocent men spent in jail.
For Sousa and Damien, the evidence emerged too slowly to affect the length of their respective sentences - each was released from prison on parole in 1995.
Eastridge filed a motion to vacate with the D.C. Superior Court based on the new evidence but was denied on appeal in 1999.
In response, the three men jointly petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus asking the D.C. Circuit Court to vacate their convictions on the grounds of actual innocence.
Michael Damien died in December, 2002 - two years before an evidentiary hearing was held in 2004.
On May 26, 2005, the United States Court for the District of Columbia granted habeas to Eastridge and Sousa on the grounds that petitioners had simultaneously established their actual innocence as well as a violation of their Constitutional rights. While the presiding judge acknowledged that the same reasoning would apply to Damien, no writ was issued because he was deceased.
Eastridge and Sousa filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and in 2011, Eastridge settled for $1.14 million and Sousa settled for $750,000.