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John Huffington

Other Maryland exonerations
On May 25, 1981, 21-year-old Diane Becker was found beaten and stabbed to death in her trailer in the Long Harbor campground in Harford County, Maryland. Not long after, the body of the man who lived with her, 30-year-old Joseph Hudson Jr. was found shot to death a few miles away on the side of a road.

The next day, police arrested 18-year-old John Huffington and 25-year-old Deno Kanaras on charges of murder. Kanaras told police he was present when Huffington committed the murders and that the crime involved drugs and money. Huffington maintained that he was innocent and was not present for the murders.

A Harford County grand jury indicted both men on charges of first-degree murder, burglary, robbery, and illegal use of a weapon.

In November 1981, Huffington went to trial in Caroline County where the trial was moved after a defense motion for a change of venue was granted. The prosecution’s case largely depended on Kanaras, who testified as a court witness after the prosecution told the judge that it could not vouch for the veracity of Kanaras's testimony.

Kanaras testified that he and Huffington were at a bar where Hudson worked as a disc jockey. They agreed to purchase cocaine from Hudson. After the bar closed, Kanaras said he and Huffington followed Hudson to Becker's trailer, where they had been before. There the transaction occurred. This was the only testimony from Kanaras that Huffington did not deny.

According to Kanaras, after the transaction, he and Huffington went to Huffington’s apartment where Huffington made some phone calls and said he had found a buyer for the remainder of Hudson’s cocaine. Kanaras said they drove back to the trailer where they picked up Hudson and left in Kanaras's car. Huffington claimed that Kanaras drove Huffington home where he spent the rest of the time.

Kanaras claimed that Huffington directed him to park in the driveway of an old farm. All three men got out of the car and were walking up the driveway when Kanaras said he heard four or five gunshots and Hudson fell. Kanaras said Huffington reloaded the revolver, dumping the expended shells onto the ground, then approached Hudson, and shot him twice in the head from close range before retrieving a bag of cocaine.

Kanaras said Huffington pointed the gun at him, and ordered him to drive them back to the campground so Huffington could steal $2,000 in cash that Hudson had at the trailer. Kanaras said they searched the trailer until Kanaras found the money in a cabinet. At that point, according to Kanaras, Huffington pulled a knife out his boot and told Kanaras to kill Becker, who was asleep. Kanaras said he refused, and Huffington then picked up a vodka bottle and smashed Becker five or six times in the back of the head. Kanaras said Huffington also stabbed Becker repeatedly with the knife.

Kanaras said they drove to Huffington’s apartment where Huffington cleaned the gun and the knife. Kanaras said Huffington forced him to take $840 of the money. Kanaras testified that Huffington changed clothes, put his pants in the sink, and poured bleach over them to try remove bloodstains. Later, Kanaras said, Huffington put the pants into one bag, and put the knife, the bottle, and Becker's pocketbook into another bag.

Kanaras said Huffington ordered him to drive them to the Fiddler’s Convention in Cecil County. On the way, Kanaras said they stopped by a creek at Harmony Church Road where Huffington threw the bottle into some brush, burned the pocketbook and note, and threw some live rounds of ammunition into the creek. Kanaras said they stopped at another location in Cecil County where Huffington dropped the knife and gun into some stagnant water.

Kanaras said he drove Huffington to the convention where they walked around for a while, before Kanaras dropped Huffington off at a furniture store in Aberdeen, where Huffington said a friend was working and would give Huffington a ride home. When they stopped at the store, Huffington threw the bag with the pants into a nearby dumpster, Kanaras said. Kanaras said he then drove home by himself.

Police testified that Kanaras led them to the spot where the knife, the gun, and the pocketbook were recovered in a pool of water. Kanaras also led them to the charred remains of a pocketbook, as well as a vodka bottle and six live rounds of ammunition along Harmony Church Road. The officers also recovered a bag containing a pair of pants that were damp and smelled of bleach in a dumpster near the furniture store.

FBI agent Michael Malone testified that he had examined hairs recovered from Becker’s bed and clothing. He testified that they “microscopically matched the head hairs of Mr. Huffington – that is, they were indistinguishable from Mr. Huffington’s head hairs; you could not tell them apart.”

FBI agent Donald Havekost testified that he conducted comparative bullet lead analysis on bullets recovered from along Harmony Creek Road. Based on analysis of the chemical elements of the bullets, Havekost said the bullets had the same chemical composition as bullets that had been recovered from Hudson’s body.

FBI agent Evan Hodge said that the bullets that were recovered from Hudson’s body could have been fired by the gun recovered in the pool of water. He said he examined shell casings found near Hudson’s body and concluded the casings were fired by the .38-caliber revolver “to the exclusion of all other revolvers.”

The prosecution said that blood had been found on one of Huffington’s boots, but the amount was so small analysts could not determine whether it was human or animal blood. Blood found on Kanaras’s boots was human blood, but no further analysis was possible. Blood found on the vodka bottle could have been Becker’s, the prosecution said.

Another FBI agent testified that a fingerprint on the vodka bottle was made by Huffington’s right index finger.

Huffington testified and denied Kanaras's account. Huffington maintainws that he had been at home since the initial transaction, before Kanaras came back in the morning to go to the Fiddler’s Convention. Huffington testified that they left early because Kanaras said he was sick. Huffington testified that Kanaras called him later that day to ask Huffington to tell the police that the two of them had been together all night at the Fiddler’s Convention. Huffington testified that he went to the Sheriff’s office to attempt to provide this alibi for Kanaras, and he agreed to let the police search his apartment, where they recovered a Marlboro cigarette box containing cocaine. He was arrested the next day.

Huffington said the blood on his boot came from his puppy, which had cut its foot. He said he had been to the trailer perhaps a dozen times before the murders and that his fingerprint must have gotten onto the vodka bottle during one of his visits. Huffington denied having ever seen, owned, or possessed the pistol.

Tom Hall testified for the defense that he had called Huffington between about 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. to invite him to a party. Hall said Huffington declined, saying that he was tired and wanted to go to sleep. Hall also said he was present when Huffington's puppy cut its foot.

The defense also called several witnesses who testified to Huffington’s reputation for honesty and peacefulness.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called Bognanni, who testified that Huffington came to her apartment about 7:30 p.m. on May 25. Assistant District Attorney Joseph Cassilly asked what Huffington said during the visit. Bognanni said, “He was mentioning taking a trip.”

The defense objected on the ground that such testimony was improper rebuttal since Huffington had not been asked about it while on the witness stand. The defense argued that the prosecution was improperly attempting to suggest that Huffington was thinking about fleeing—evidence of a consciousness of guilt.

The objection was overruled. Bognanni testified that Huffington said he was thinking about taking a trip to Disneyworld in Florida, and that they called a couple of airlines to find out about flights and the prices. She said while they had discussed in the past the possibility of taking a trip, they had never discussed a trip to Florida.

The defense then asked for a mistrial, but that motion was denied.

During closing argument, the defense attempted to diminish the testimony, noting that it was common for people to talk about taking trips, but never actually go.

In response, the prosecution noted, “The problem is that Miss Bognanni says that Huffington never discussed with her before about going to Florida, but he just happened to be discussing that with her the evening after the murders took place!”

On November 13, 1981, the jury convicted Huffington of two counts of first-degree felony murder, robbery, burglary, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to death.

Kanaras went to trial in March 1982. The defense contended he was coerced to take part by Huffington. A defense request to call a psychologist to testify that Kanaras was vulnerable to being forced to act under duress was denied. On April 1, 1982, the jury convicted him of Becker's murder and acquitted him of Hudson's murder. Kanaras was sentenced to life in prison.

In December 1982, the Maryland Court of Appeals, by a 4-3 vote, vacated Huffington’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the testimony of Bognanni about the discussion of a trip to Florida was improperly admitted and should not have been allowed.

In May 1983, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld Kanaras’s conviction and sentence.

Huffington went to trial a second time in November 1983. The defense was granted another change of venue to Frederick County. By that time, Cassilly had been elected District Attorney of Harford County.

The prosecution’s evidence at the retrial was much the same as the first trial. The FBI agents testified about the forensic evidence. Malone, in particular, testified that the hair from Becker’s trailer “microscopically matched the head hairs of Mr. Huffington—that is, they were indistinguishable from Mr. Huffington’s head hairs. You could not tell them apart.” Malone did acknowledge that microscopic hair comparison was “not a positive personal identification.”

Huffington did not testify at this trial.

On November 19, 1983. Huffington was again convicted of two counts of felony murder, as well as robbery, burglary, and weapons charges. He was again sentenced to death.

The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the convictions and sentence in November 1985. By that time, Cassilly had been elected District Attorney of Harford County.

Huffington, acting without a lawyer, filed a series of post-conviction motions, and in 1988, attorney David Stewart, began representing Huffington. When Stewart joined the law firm of Ropes & Gray in 1989, he brought the case with him.

In 1992, after Huffington was granted a new sentencing hearing, he was resentenced to life in prison.

Meanwhile, in 1985, a federal judiciary committee was investigating an ethics complaint against U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings. The complaint was based on allegations that Hastings accepted $150,000 in return for unfreezing funds seized from two criminal defendants and reducing the defendants’ sentences. Hastings had been acquitted at a trial, but the ethics complaint went forward.

As part of the ethics investigation, a purse strap that Hastings offered as evidence in his trial was sent to the FBI lab where Malone was assigned to analyze it. Malone believed the strap had been intentionally cut. He took it to William Tobin, a metallurgist in the FBI lab. While Malone watched, Tobin used a tensile tester to determine the force necessary to break the strap. Subsequently, Malone falsely testified before the ethics committee that he conducted the tensile test.

The committee concluded that Hastings had committed misconduct and impeachment proceedings were initiated in the U.S. Congress. Tobin was asked to testify. Prior to his testimony, he reviewed the transcript of Malone’s testimony. In August 1989, Tobin wrote a memorandum saying that Malone falsely testified to having done the tensile test and also had made false statements that contradicted laboratory findings. Tobin identified instances where Malone “presented apparently and potentially exculpatory information as incriminating.”

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report criticizing 13 FBI lab examiners for various problems, including poor quality work, inaccurate testimony, testimony that went beyond their level of expertise, and preparing scientifically flawed reports.

The report declared that Malone “falsely testified” about the tensile test, testified outside his expertise, and inaccurately reported test results. The OIG report noted that Malone had admitted he had not done the test, but said he was present when it was performed. The OIG report said that Malone’s testimony was “particularly egregious.”

At about the same time, a federal task force was established to figure out how to disclose the report. On June 18, 1997, Lucy Thompson, a senior attorney on the task force, wrote a letter to Cassilly and enclosed a copy of the OIG report, Tobin’s memorandum, as well as a letter Stewart wrote to obtain a copy of the report and Thompson’s reply to Stewart, which included a copy of the report. Thompson asked Cassilly to reach out to Amy Jabloner, who was on the task force.

Jabloner later drafted a memorandum for her file which stated that Cassilly “has decided to wait a while to see if the defense files any post-conviction motions in this case.” The memo quoted Cassilly as saying that he had originally requested that the FBI retest the evidence in the Huffington case, but “reconsidered and decided to wait to see what the defense will do since it has received a copy” of the OIG report.

As part of the task force’s work, the FBI hired forensic scientists to independently review the work of the examiners cited in the OIG report, including Malone’s work in the Huffington case. Steve Robertson, a hair and fiber analyst, reviewed Malone’s bench notes, 80 evidence specimens, and Malone’s testimony at Huffington’s and Kanaras’s trials.

In September 1999, Robertson issued a report saying that he “was unable to determine whether Agent Malone performed the appropriate tests in a scientifically acceptable manner and that Agent Malone’s examination results as set forth in the laboratory report were not supported or adequately documented in the bench notes.”

Robertson also reported that the bench notes were not dated, were in pencil, and there were erasures. “Some questioned hair [sic] were matched or eliminated as coming from the known samples without characterization of the microscopic characteristics observed in these questioned or known hair.”

Robertson said that while Malone’s testimony was consistent with his laboratory report, it was not consistent with his bench notes. Robertson also noted that Malone testified at Kanaras’s trial about performing certain tests that were likely performed by others.

In October 1999, Thompson sent a copy of Robertson’s report to Cassilly and reviewed the OIG report. Thompson requested that Cassilly review the materials to determine whether Robertson’s report “should be disclosed to the defendant [Huffington] or the defendant’s counsel.”

Years later, Cassilly testified during disbarment proceedings that he didn’t put either the OIG report or Robertson’s report into the prosecution’s Huffington’s case file. He said he kept both for about five years, then threw them away, and forgot about them.

In 2003, Huffington filed a motion to preserve forensic evidence and to conduct DNA analysis, in particular on the hairs that Malone had said were microscopically similar to Huffington’s hair. In response, Cassilly opposed the motion and asked for permission from the court to destroy the evidence.

Cassilly’s motions were denied. But in 2006, Huffington withdrew the petition for DNA testing. The evidence was ordered preserved.

In 2010, Huffington filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence, The petition asserted that Malone’s hair testimony and the comparative bullet lead analysis were unreliable. The petition cited reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences between 2006 and 2010. One concluded there was no scientific support for the use of hair comparison for individual identifications in the absence of DNA testing. Another found no scientific basis for testimony based on bullet lead analysis. Based on the 1997 report, the petition also cited evidence discrediting Malone for his testimony in the Hastings case. Cassilly responded: “No evidence has been presented that the conclusion that examiner Malone rendered in court is not correct. References that Malone was found deficient in another case may be impeaching but it does not prove that his observations in this case are incorrect.”

In March 2011, at a hearing on Huffington’s petition, Cassilly accused the defense of mischaracterizing what was said about Malone. “We did receive a letter from the FBI indicating that they had reviewed Malone’s testimony in this case and that they concluded that his testimony was appropriate, that he did not overstate the case,” Cassilly said.

In May, 2011, the judge overseeing the hearing asked if the hairs could be submitted for DNA testing. As a result, the hairs were submitted to the FBI for such testing.

In November 2011, a reporter for the Washington Post gave Huffington's defense team documents obtained through a public records request that included the memos from the task force documenting how Cassilly had been given the OIG report and the Robertson report which the defense had never received. The defense filed a supplemental memorandum accusing Cassilly of withholding exculpatory evidence for more than a decade.

In March 2013, the FBI reported that the DNA testing had excluded Huffington as the source of the hairs that Malone had said were microscopically similar to Huffington’s.

In May 2013, Huffington’s petition for a writ of actual innocence was granted. His convictions were vacated, and he was granted a new trial. On July 22, 2013, Huffington was released, while the prosecution said it would appeal the ruling.

In July 2014, another package of materials from the Department of Justice relating to Malone’s work in the Huffington case was sent to Cassilly, including a letter from a special counsel to the Department of Justice. The letter said, “We have concluded that the hair comparison analysis testimony or laboratory report presented in this case included statements that exceeded the limits of science and were, therefore, invalid.”

Cassilly put them in the prosecution’s file, but later said he did not read them. He also did not provide any of the materials to Huffington or his lawyer.

In 2016, the prosecution dismissed its appeal of the ruling granting Huffington a new trial. A third trial was scheduled for April 2017 and then pushed to 2018. While preparing for trial, Huffington’s lawyer wrote to Cassilly requesting any communication between the state and any law enforcement agency regarding Huffington, the case, or any testing that was exculpatory. Cassilly did not turn over the 2014 letters and replied there was no exculpatory material in the state’s possession.

Over the next several months, Cassilly repeatedly denied that the prosecution had any evidence favorable to Huffington. On November 9, 2017, Huffington, fearing the possibility of being found guilty again at the hands of a prosecutor who had withheld exculpatory evidence, agreed to enter an Alford plea to two counts of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and burglary. The plea allowed Huffington to maintain his innocence, but acknowledge the prosecution had evidence that a jury might rely upon to return a guilty verdict. In return, Huffington was sentenced to time served.

In 2018, Huffington filed a complaint against Cassilly with the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland. In January 2019, Cassilly retired as District Attorney and assumed “inactive/retired” status with the Maryland Bar.

In October 2021, Cassilly was disbarred for numerous violations, including the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence to Huffington and lying in court as well as to Huffington’s attorney during the post-conviction proceedings. The disbarment ruling noted that some of Cassilly’s testimony during the disbarment hearing was not credible.

In November 2021, Huffington, still represented by Ropes & Gray, filed an application for a pardon with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The nearly 200-page application included dozens of letters from supporters and cited his work since his release in 2013. His lawyers noted that Huffington had “forged a career path and serves as corporate social responsibility director for Holdings Management Company and VP/COO for the Kinetic Capital Community Foundation. He is also engaged in volunteer and charity work to better his community, focusing on assisting recently released individuals, and enacting criminal justice reform.”

On January 13, 2023, Gov. Hogan granted Huffington a full pardon, acknowledging that his convictions had been conclusively shown to be erroneous. Huffington said in a statement, “Thank you, Governor Hogan, for granting me a full innocence pardon and for clearing my name. I have fought for over 40 years for this day and I feel a deep sense of closure and vindication.”

On July 5, 2023, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved paying Huffington $2.9 million in state compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/9/2023
Last Updated: 7/5/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1981
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes