Twice-convicted Murdererto Escape Death Penalty

February 02, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

A Joppatowne man blames a "spineless" court system for causing the Harford State's Attorney to decide not to seek the death penalty againfor the man who murdered his daughter 11 years ago.

State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said last week that he won't try for a third time to get John N. Huffington of Bel Air sentenced to death for the 1981 murders of Diana Becker and her boyfriend, John M. Hudson.

"I wasn't for (Cassilly's) decision," said Alan Watson, Becker's father. "But I can see what he's up against. . . . He's done the bestthat he can.

"The Maryland court system is set up to prolong things," Watson said. "The murderer has been appealing, appealing and appealing. It has cost the taxpayers money, and I don't get an appeal for my daughter."

Huffington, 29, must be resentenced for two countsof first-degree murder because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that struck down Maryland's prior death-penalty sentence procedure.Now being held at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, Huffingtonis to be sentenced at March 31 in Frederick Circuit Court, where he was last convicted of the murders. A co-defendant, Deno C. Kanaras, is serving a life sentence for his role in Hudson's murder. Kanaras was acquitted in the Becker murder.

Rather than seek the death penalty again, Cassilly said he will ask Huffington to be sentenced to twoconsecutive life sentences for the murder counts plus 18 years for two weapons charges.

"The problem simply is the age of the case," said Cassilly, who prosecuted Huffington and Kanaras. "We're not goingto be able to put the same case on."

Death sentences in Maryland must be handed down by a Circuit Court jury that has heard all of a case's testimony. That means Cassilly would essentially have to reassemble his case and another jury.

And that, Cassilly said, would lead to problems.

Kanaras, who testified against Huffington at two previous trials, has refused to testify again, Cassilly said. Meanwhile, Cassilly said his office has been unable to find another key witness. Also, the lead investigator of the case, William P. Van Horn of the county Sheriff's Office, died last October.

Another death-penalty sentence for Huffington would give him a new opportunity to appeal his conviction, Cassilly said.

"We'd be looking at years down the road before those would be resolved," he said.

According to policereports and trial testimony, the Hudson murder occurred this way:

Huffington and Kanaras drove Hudson, a 30-year-old disc jockey, to afarm lane in Abingdon for a cocaine deal in the early morning of May25, 1981.

As Hudson was getting out of the vehicle, Huffington shot him six times in the back of the head.

Huffington and Kanaras then went to Becker's mobile home in Abingdon, where the woman was beaten in the head with a vodka bottle and stabbed 33 times as her 4-year-old son Daniel slept nearby.

"At the time it was one of the big murder cases," Cassilly said, noting that the trials were moved out of Harford. "This one received lots of publicity."

Kanaras, whose family formerly owned the Red Fox Restaurant and Lounge in Bel Air, was acquitted of Becker's murder after he testified that Huffington forced him at gunpoint to drive to Becker's home.

Huffington first received the death penalty following his conviction by a Caroline County jury in 1981. But he was granted a new trial by the state Court of Appeals.

The defendant was convicted a second time, and again received the death penalty, by a Frederick County jury in 1983.

The second conviction was on appeal when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1988 that struck down Maryland's death sentences because the stateused a form for jurors to check and did not allow jurors to use their own judgment when considering the death penalty.

Although the state Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court refused to hear Huffington's appeal, he has to receive a new sentence because of the high court's ruling, Cassilly said.

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