Netflix documentary offers new insights on Catherine Fuller’s murder.

Why Confess to a Murder You Didn’t Commit? This New Netflix Documentary Has Some Answers.

Why Confess to a Murder You Didn’t Commit? This New Netflix Documentary Has Some Answers.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 5 2017 7:45 AM

The Murder That Won’t Die

A new Netflix documentary aims to explain how false confessions happen—and raises new questions about D.C.’s most horrific killing.

Still from the trailer for The Confession Tapes.
Still from the trailer for The Confession Tapes.

Netflix

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied any relief to seven Washington, D.C., men who were convicted for the 1984 killing of Catherine Fuller. It seemed that this decision might finally mark the end—after 33 years—to what was perhaps the most notorious criminal case in the city’s history. Fuller, a 49-year-old wife and mother, was sodomized with a pole and kicked and beaten to death, for $40 and the cheap jewelry she wore.

Despite its legal finality, the 6–2 ruling left unanswered questions about the possible impact of evidence favorable to the defense that the prosecution had hidden. Now, an upcoming Netflix documentary about the murder—streaming on Sept. 8 as part of a series called The Confession Tapes—argues that the video statements at the heart of the government’s case were false, coerced confessions.

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The brutality of the attack made the lead detectives determined to find whoever had done it. After a street vendor found Fuller’s body in an empty garage in Northeast D.C. around 6 p.m. on Oct. 1, 1984, a medical examiner, conducting an autopsy the next day, termed her injuries “hideous.” “She had been impaled,” he later said. “I never saw anything like that.”

The detectives quickly settled on a theory, from an anonymous phone tip. A gang of young men from the neighborhood, the “8th and H Crew,” had pushed Fuller into a nearby alley to rob her. When she resisted, they went wild. Within hours, the investigation “switched from gathering evidence to ‘Oh my God, this is it!’ ” former D.C. homicide detective Jim Trainum says in the documentary.

They had a riveting narrative, but turned up little proof of a gang attack. No useful forensic evidence was recovered from the scene. Despite more than 400 interviews over nearly a year, officers never found a single civilian witness—someone unconnected to the accused—who had information supporting their theory. But they did get three teens to confess on tape. And based on those statements, they charged 17 young people with the murder.

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The Netflix film’s primary focus is on Clifton Yarborough, whose confession likely sealed the fate of the accused, as well as his own. He was just 16, slim and quiet, with a baby face and a “Philly” haircut: short on the sides but longer on the top. He was also barely literate, a special education student at Eastern High School, with a verbal IQ in the bottom 1 percent. A perfect target.

Cliff and four others were arrested early on Dec. 9, 1984. The officers didn’t tell his mother he was being charged with murder, or suggest that a lawyer or parent accompany him. They just said they needed to “talk to him.” The two lead detectives, Patrick McGinnis and Ruben Sanchez-Serrano, acknowledged afterward that they keyed on Cliff because he was the youngest and weakest of their suspects. They figured he would “roll before the older ones.”

At the homicide office, they kept Cliff handcuffed and locked in an interrogation room. After about 40 minutes the detectives came in and played good cop–bad cop. Sanchez screamed and pounded on the table and called Cliff a liar for saying he knew nothing. He tore off his shirt, and acted like he was going to attack if Cliff didn’t confess. Cliff said they also pushed him around the room, slammed him into the wall and a cabinet, and put his head in a toilet bowl. Later Sanchez would admit that he yelled and ripped his own shirt but rejected any claims of physical abuse. There’s no record of that long morning.

Cliff repeatedly denied having anything to do with Fuller’s murder. But as the time passed, the detectives wore him down. At 12:07 p.m., nearly five hours after his arrest, they turned on the recorder and Cliff confessed.

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In a case like this, with minimal evidence aside from confessions, proving if they’re true or false is tricky. On the one hand, the lack of supporting information makes them suspect. The only proof of guilt is words: manufactured evidence. At the same time, there’s no DNA or neutral eyewitness testimony to clearly contradict them. And even with a highly vulnerable subject, like Cliff, a confession is always mesmerizing.

On his hourlong video, Cliff looks subdued and often tentative and speaks softly. But he seems to understand the questions and answers directly. He says no force has been used against him. He says he saw the crime, and identifies pictures of the alleged participants he knows from the neighborhood. There’s no flow to the story, though, just a flat series of assertions.

“Monk ripped her blouse off her.”

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“Snotrag hit her and dragged her.”

“Derrick stomped her.”

“Levy stuck a pole in her.”

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Standing alone, his statement is powerful and damning. The detectives—who declined interview requests from the filmmakers—have said in court they never fed him information. Everything on the tape came from Cliff.

Trainum, the retired D.C. detective who now works as an expert on false confessions, and has reviewed the case files and the statements, disputes that claim. He says Cliff’s tape is what police call a “recap video”—a summary that was rehearsed repeatedly off camera and recorded only after careful preparation. He says that’s why the story comes out in such a cold, cryptic way. Cliff can be easily led because of his age and fear and impairment. And he doesn’t realize the import of what he’s saying.

Later, under oath at his sentencing, Cliff told the judge that “[t]he videotape that has been made by me, I was afraid, and that is why I said … some statements that someone else made and then asked for me to say it, and I just said it because I thought it would get me out.”

Cliff’s youth, his deficits, and his denials all cast doubt on his video. And several factual errors, noted in the film, are further evidence of unreliability. He says Fuller was repeatedly stomped, but the autopsy report shows no injuries of that type. He says Fuller’s blouse was torn off, but she was wearing a sweater that was still on her body. He says he watched the incident from the Ninth Street end of the alley, but from that location he could not have seen inside the garage where she was sodomized. He says two different men shoved a pole into Fuller, but there was only a single wound track in her rectum.   

Once Cliff understood what he’d done, he never spoke to police again. He ignored plea offers that would have greatly cut his sentence. He wouldn’t testify for the prosecution, so at the trial his confession was played in a redacted form, with the names edited out. After seven days of deliberations, with no verdicts, the jurors asked to watch his videotape again. Soon after, they voted to convict six of the defendants, including Cliff.

Two other teenage suspects also made recorded statements after hours of questioning. Unlike Cliff, both testified for the government at the trial. Both later said they lied on the stand in exchange for leniency. One of the men died last year of a suspected drug overdose.

The other, Calvin Alston, explained his actions in words similar to Cliff’s. After being raped in his first two months in jail, Alston said he was desperate and depressed. No matter what he or anyone else said, he felt “we was gonna go down for that case.” So he “said what they [the police] wanted me to say. Everything that they said that happened in that alley they had me say that in front of the court.” In the trial’s most dramatic moment, he knelt in the well of the courtroom and acted out the sodomy. He said he “had” to do it to get a lesser sentence.

* * *

The total lack of neutral witnesses has troubled everyone familiar with the case, including the police. The killing occurred during rush hour on a Monday. Row houses backed onto both sides of the alley where Fuller’s body was found, and there was lots of foot traffic past each end. The detectives believed that 20 to 25 young people were involved, either taking part or cheering the others on.

“Because of the neighborhood as I knew it,” McGinnis said, “someone had to see the lady go back in the alley.” Sanchez agreed: “How could 25 people be in the alley and nobody saw anything?” Michael Hedges, the Washington Times reporter who covered the trial, wrote that the question of “how Mrs. Fuller could be struck down on a drizzly afternoon within sight of dozens of her neighbors,” with no one seeming to notice, was “never sufficiently answered.”

The film offers an answer: No one had seen anything related to a gang attack because there had not been one; the killing was much more likely committed by a man named James McMillan, with a single accomplice. But the defense lawyers couldn’t make that argument because the evidence supporting it was deliberately hidden by the prosecutor.

While the vendor who found Fuller’s body waited for police to arrive, he noticed two young men next to the garage. When the first police car pulled up, they both fled. As they ran, one of the men seemed to be holding an object under his coat. The instrument used to sodomize Fuller was never found.

Some months later, the vendor looked at photos and identified the runners as McMillan and an associate. McMillan was the one hiding something. Later, three more independent witnesses also put McMillan in the alley around the time of the assault. He was living in a house that backed onto the alley just steps from where Fuller’s body was. McMillian himself has said he was on the scene at the time of the crime, though he has never confessed or said anything further.

The film explains why McMillan made a very likely killer. Not only was he on the scene, within two weeks of Fuller’s murder he viciously robbed two women walking alone in the same area. And eight years later, within weeks of his release from prison for those crimes, he committed “the exact same murder” as Fuller’s: sodomizing a young woman and beating her to death just blocks from Eighth and H NE. He’s currently serving life without the possibility of parole for that crime. Trainum says that if the Fuller case was open today, McMillan would be his “No. 1 suspect.”

In fact, he’d been on police radar. But by the time officers confirmed his suspicious presence at the garage, they had already arrested 15 other young people for the crime, and their gang story was front-page news. McMillan didn’t fit that theory. So the prosecution hid the evidence and the identifications and pressed ahead with their case.

Because the information was buried, the accused had no counterstory to present. The best their lawyers could offer was a “not me, maybe them” defense—blaming one or more co-defendants for the killing. Rather than attacking the confessions, they endorsed them, and did the prosecutor’s job for him.

After a trial in the fall of 1985, eight young men were convicted for Fuller’s murder and sent to prison for life. Fifteen years later, a dogged reporter found the hidden evidence. It took 13 more years to win a hearing, then the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Three reviewing courts agreed the prosecutor had cheated by withholding the McMillan information. But it didn’t matter, they said, because with the confessions he would have won convictions anyway. Tough luck for the men who—despite their claims of innocence—are still locked up.

* * *

The film makes a strong case that Cliff’s confession, and those of the two snitches, were untrue; that the convictions were built on lies. Given all we now know, it’s easy to believe that. False confessions are far more common than we used to think, especially from juveniles under stress, especially from those with deficits. All three confessors have recanted under oath. (Cliff did so at a hearing for a new trial in 2012, but the officers also testified that they had done nothing improper in obtaining his statement.)

But in the end, we can’t know. Ultimately, the documentary is an extended argument for taping all interactions between the police and their suspects. D.C. began doing that in 2006, and about half the states now mandate the practice, either by law or court action. If we had video of the entire encounter, we’d see what happened, what was said, what led Cliff to finally talk. We’d know what to believe. As it is, all we know for sure is that six men are still in prison for the crime. And there are more doubts about their guilt today than ever before.

One final, quiet argument that the confessions were false, and that the men are innocent, is their lives. Parole has always been their best hope for release. Now it is their only hope.

All six have maintained good records in prison and would have been paroled years ago but for one thing. For a convicted man to earn parole, he must show that he’s been rehabilitated. And a key part of that, under release guidelines, is “taking responsibility”—a euphemism for admitting guilt. So far, none of them have done so.

So they remain behind bars. Even now, 33 years on, they will not sell their integrity for their freedom.

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Thomas Dybdahl was a public defender in Washington, D.C., for 14 years and is currently working on a book about the Fuller murder case. He has degrees in theology, journalism, and law.