Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Maryland man wants pardon in murder case handled by disbarred ex-prosecutor Cassilly

John Huffington and Ropes & Gray partner Chong S. Park speak at a news conference on Nov. 9, 2021. (The Daily Record/Madeleine O’Neill)

John Huffington, the onetime death-row inmate whose complaint against retired Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly led to the prosecutor’s disbarment last month, is seeking a pardon in the 1981 double murder case that put him behind bars for 32 years.

Huffington is asking Gov. Larry Hogan to clear his name in the slayings of Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson.

“It’s not appropriate that I carry convictions for crimes I did not commit,” Huffington said at a news conference Tuesday. “Your name is important. Your reputation is important.”

Huffington was initially sentenced to death after being convicted in the murders in 1981 and again in 1983 but was later resentenced to life in prison.

He has been free since 2013, when a judge granted his petition for a writ of actual innocence and ordered a new trial in the murders after DNA testing excluded Huffington as a source of hair samples found at the crime scene.

In 2017, Huffington entered what’s known as an Alford plea — in which he maintained his innocence but acknowledged that a plea was in his best interest in the face of the evidence — to two counts of first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery and one count of burglary. He received two consecutive life sentences with all suspended but the 32 years he had already served in prison.

Huffington said Tuesday that he had little choice but to enter the plea.

“I was pressured into taking that Alford plea as the only way to make sure that I wasn’t going to go back to prison for a crime I didn’t do,” he said.

Huffington in 2018 filed a complaint against Cassilly with bar counsel, which investigated and brought ethics charges against the prosecutor.

Cassilly’s behavior in Huffington’s case led a unanimous Maryland Court of Appeals to disbar him last month for having withheld a potentially exculpatory report from Huffington’s defense and for other acts of dishonesty.

The Court of Appeals found that Cassilly intentionally withheld and misrepresented a report that raised significant questions about testimony from FBI Agent Michael Malone, who said in 1983 that hair samples from the crime scene matched Huffington’s hair on a microscopic level.

After Malone was later discredited in another case, the FBI conducted an independent review of cases in which he had testified. The review of Huffington’s case found serious flaws in Malone’s testimony. Cassilly did not turn over the report to Huffington’s defense, which did not know the report existed.

Cassilly went on to make misleading and false statements about the report’s contents as Huffington continued to try and prove his innocence, the Court of Appeals found.

The high court found that Cassilly’s actions violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to candor to the court, fairness to the opposing party, special responsibilities of the prosecutor, failing to respond to a lawful demand for information, dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

“Here, in his role of state’s attorney for Harford County, Cassilly, among other misconduct, knowingly made false statements of fact to the circuit court on multiple occasions, engaged in intentional dishonesty, concealed from Huffington and his counsel the Robertson report, and sought to destroy the evidence that was the subject of the report,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court.

Cassilly was state’s attorney in Harford County for 36 years before his retirement in January 2019. He has defended his handling of the case, including in an opinion piece published in The Baltimore Sun.

“It is a sad day for law enforcement when a convicted murderer can use the system to seek revenge because the prosecutor did not give up and let him get away with murder,” Cassilly wrote.

The prosecution accused Huffington and another man, Deno Kanaras, in the deaths of Hudson and Becker, saying that the two men killed the couple after buying cocaine from Hudson on Memorial Day weekend in 1981. Kanaras, who was also convicted of murder and served 27 years in prison, was a key witness against Huffington.

A pardon from Hogan would also make Huffington eligible for compensation under the Walter Lomax Act, a new law that standardized how Maryland pays the wrongfully convicted.