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Convicted double-murderer questions FBI’s forensic evidence in ’81 slayings

An internal Justice Department report on flaws in forensic-evidence gathering by the FBI might provide the final chance for a convicted Maryland double-murderer who has served 30 years of a double-life sentence to argue for his innocence.

John Norman Huffington’s attorneys argue in court papers that the report, which found flaws in microscopic hair analyses, warrants a new trial.

Huffington’s convictions for the brutal 1981 killings of Diane Becker and her boyfriend, Joseph Hudson, rested in large part on FBI Agent Michael Malone’s damning testimony that Huffington’s hair was found at the crime scenes, attorney Michael D. Laufert stated in the papers filed in Frederick County Circuit Court.

In those papers, Laufert argued that Huffington’s conviction should be overturned based on what he called the agent’s “false, misleading and unscientific” testimony.

“If Huffington and the court had known the truth about Agent Malone’s analysis at the time of Huffington’s trial, Agent Malone would not have been permitted to testify, erasing the key scientific evidence against Huffington and creating a substantial possibility of a different jury verdict,” wrote Laufert, of Ropes & Gray LLP in Washington, D.C.

Laufert, who declined to comment on Huffington’s case because it is ongoing, stated in the papers that he learned of the internal report only when a Washington Post reporter told him of it in November.

That disclosure should have come from Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly no later than January 2011, Laufert stated in the court filing. Laufert at that time requested that Cassilly provide “any and all results of investigations or examinations” related to Huffington’s body, clothing or belongings.

“The state’s attorney decided not to disclose anything,” Laufert wrote. “This decision not to disclose was outrageous, unjust and potentially amounts to an ethical violation.”

But Cassilly disputed Laufert’s version of events Tuesday.

The state’s attorney said he in fact had learned of the report about seven years ago when Huffington’s then attorney — David O. Stewart, then a partner and now counsel at Ropes & Gray — referred to it in a court filing.

“They suddenly pop up again and say they didn’t know about the report,” Cassilly said of Laufert and his colleagues at Ropes & Gray. “How can you not know about it? Your guy is the one who told me.”

Laufert, in response to Cassilly’s comments, said Stewart’s papers referred to a publicly released Justice Department inspector general’s report that was critical of the FBI’s analysis of forensic evidence, not to the internal study that revealed greater malfeasance.

The Washington Post published an article on the study, which was completed in 2004, in its Tuesday edition. The Huffington case was cited as one of “hundreds” of convictions that “might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence.”

FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd issued a statement to the newspaper.

“In cases where microscopic hair exams conducted by the FBI resulted in a conviction, the FBI is evaluating whether additional review is warranted,” she said. “The FBI has undertaken comprehensive reviews in the past, and will not hesitate to do so again if necessary.”

Cassilly said Huffington’s murder convictions would still stand even without the controversial hair-analysis evidence, as his fingerprints were found on the murder weapons.

“What are you [defense attorneys] going to do when we reintroduce John Huffington’s fingerprints on a bloody murder weapon?” Cassilly said.

According to trial testimony, Huffington shot Hudson six times, including twice in the head at point-blank range, after buying 3.5 grams of cocaine from him in Edgewood on Memorial Day weekend in 1981. Huffington, and his accomplice, Deno Kanaras, then drove to Becker’s trailer, where Hudson had left a note telling her where he had expected to be.

Huffington destroyed the note before stabbing Becker 33 times, according to testimony.

The trial was moved from Harford County to Caroline County Circuit Court, where a jury convicted Huffington of two counts of first-degree murder in 1981. Huffington was sentenced to die in the gas chamber, but Maryland’s high court — the Court of Appeals — overturned the conviction.

Huffington was retried, this time in Frederick County Circuit Court. He was again convicted and sentenced to death in 1984. That sentence was later vacated and reduced to two life sentences.

In the past 30 years, Huffington has mounted at least eight appeals, including one to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices declined to hear the case.

Kanaras was convicted in 1982 for his involvement and sentenced to life in prison.