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Double-murder retrial ordered

A former death-row inmate has won a new trial on double-murder charges based on DNA testing of hair found near one of the victim’s bodies.

However, Harford County’s chief prosecutor vowed Wednesday to appeal the order vacating John Norman Huffington’s 1983 double murder convictions and ordering a new trial after tests showed the hair did not contain Huffington’s DNA.

At Huffington’s trial, prosecutors said the hair placed him at the scene of the May 1981 murder of Diane Becker at an old farm house off Wheel Road in Harford County, and that the bullets used in Becker’s murder linked him to the killing of Joseph Hudson at a nearby campground that same night.

But State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said the DNA results did not warrant the judge’s orders granting Huffington’s writ of “actual innocence” and a new trial because prosecutors had introduced more damning evidence to link Huffington to the murders. Specifically, Huffington’s fingerprints were on a vodka bottle used to kill Becker, he added.

“There is absolutely no evidence of actual innocence,” Cassilly said. “Somehow the defendant’s fingerprints did get on the bloody murder weapons.”

Cassilly said he will file papers Thursday asking Frederick County Circuit Court Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. to reconsider his order granting Huffington a new trial. Cassilly said he is also preparing an appeal in case Dwyer rejects the reconsideration motion.

He declined to say if he is prepared to retry Huffington after 30 years, saying he is focused on the appeals.

“That’s way down the road, I think,” Cassilly said of a new trial. “I’m not going to cross the new-trial bridge before I have to get to that stage.”

But Huffington’s attorney, Ryan M. Malone, said “the truth has come out” as a result of the DNA tests.

“John Huffington was convicted on evidence that we now know is false,” added Malone, of Ropes & Gray LLP in Washington.

Huffington was actually convicted twice for the murders of Hudson and Becker, which occurred at two separate sites in Harford County and allegedly were drug-related.

His 1981 conviction in Caroline County Circuit Court, where the case was transferred from Harford County, was overturned on appeal.

Huffington was found guilty in his 1983 retrial in Frederick County Circuit Court and was sentenced to death. That sentence was later changed to consecutive life terms.

Bullets from the same box

At both trials, the prosecution relied in large part on hair found near Becker that prosecutors linked to Huffington by scientific analysis, but not DNA, Dwyer said in the ruling. Though the ruling was dated May 1, Malone said he received it on Wednesday.

Malone pressed for DNA testing of the hair samples this year as part of his motion for actual innocence and a new trial.

The tests, performed last month, revealed that Huffington “was not the source of the hair recovered from Ms. Becker’s bed sheets, thus effectively nullifying a major piece of forensic evidence used by the state to place [him] at the time and place of Becker’s murder,” Dwyer stated in a memorandum opinion accompanying his order.

“The state then connected [Huffington] to Joseph Hudson’s murder because the bullets found at the scene of Hudson’s murder and the bullets found with Becker’s purse were from ‘the same box,’ and therefore by placing [him] at Becker’s murder scene, the state had connected him also to Hudson’s murder.”

Dwyer cited a 2009 Maryland law enabling convicts to present trial judges with newly discovered evidence at any time if it “could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial” and “creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result may have been different” had it been introduced at trial.

Given the results of the DNA test and the “substantial weight given to the microscopic hair analysis by the jury, as determined by the state’s use of the evidence in its opening statement and closing argument,” Dwyer wrote, “there is a significant possibility that the outcome of [his] case may have been different had the state not utilized the microscopic hair analysis” and related testimony of an FBI agent.

Huffington has “always asserted his innocence,” said Malone, who added he has represented Huffington pro bono for the past 12 years. “It’s been a very long road.”