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Judge reverses two convictions

May 31, 2005 12:00 am

By PORTSIA SMITH

For nearly 30 years, Joseph Wayne Eastridge and Joseph Nick Sousa have been trying to prove that they didn't murder a man in Washington in 1974.

Thursday, somebody finally believed them.

That's when U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington ruled that this was a "rare case in which [Sousa and Eastridge] can prove their actual innocence."

In the highly publicized trial that became known as the Pagans Murder Case, Eastridge and Sousa were convicted of the first-degree murder of a 26-year-old man, Johnnie Battle, in 1976.

The men were sentenced to from 20 years to life in the death of Battle, who died after being stabbed numerous times on the night of Nov. 1, 1974, following an argument at the Godfather Restaurant in Washington.

Eastridge, now 58 and living in Stafford County, served 29 years in prison before being released on parole in March. Sousa, 56 and also of Stafford, had served 20 years.

Both men found out Thursday evening that the judge had cleared them by granting a petition for habeas corpus, meaning the constitutional legality of their convictions had been overturned.

The news of the convictions being set aside changed Eastridge's faith in the justice system.

"I praise the judge so much for the truth and letting justice prevail," Eastridge said last night. "I almost gave up on that, but she gave me a rebirth."

The new ruling came as a result of a 16-year investigation started by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based organization that takes on cases of inmates thought to be innocent who have been sentenced to life terms or execution.

Since 1983, Centurion's efforts have resulted in freeing more than 14 innocent people from prison.

Sousa said the good news hasn't sunk in yet because it's something he never thought would happen.

And although justice has been served, he said it came too late.

Since his conviction, Sousa said, both his parents and his wife have died.

"It's been depressing. I lost the best years of my life," Sousa said while visiting his daughter in Stafford. "My friends own homes, have retired. I'm still struggling to get by. My daughter was two weeks old when I got sentenced. She's 29 now. I missed her whole life, and it took a long time to build some type of relationship."

Kate Germond, an investigator with Centurion Ministries, said its investigation led to new witnesses, a look at old physical evidence and admitted false testimony during the trial.

"This was a difficult case to win even though the facts were obvious that they are innocent," she said. "It's a gross miscarriage of justice. Three men spent the better part of their lives in prison for a crime they did not commit."

Michael Diamen, who also was convicted, died in prison of a massive heart attack in 2002.

The three convicted men were all members of the Pagans motorcycle club.

Another Pagans member, Stephen C. Jones, who was 20 at the time, was sentenced under the District of Columbia's youthful-offender act and served just a few years in jail.

Although testimony varied during the 1976 trial, most witnesses agreed that events started with an exchange of words between Battle and his friends and members of the motorcycle group. They said Battle returned to his car and fired a handgun that wounded a Pagans member. Battle was then chased down and killed.

Sousa and Eastridge admit they were both with the group when the altercation began, but said they returned to their car before Battle was killed.

According to court documents, much of the evidence presented at trial was circumstantial.

The most damaging testimony against Eastridge and Sousa came from a Fredericksburg woman who said she heard both men bragging about the murder. The judge in her ruling said that her statements were false.

The trial was also filled with racial overtones, Eastridge said.

The victim was black, along with the judge and the 12-man jury, he said.

New evidence submitted included an affidavit from Jones recanting his trial testimony, admitting his role in the murder and affirming that Eastridge, Sousa and Diamen did not participate in the murder. The affidavit identifies Charles Jennings and John Wood, both dead, an unnamed individual and Jones as the individuals who killed Battle.

David Aveni and Brent Gurney, lawyers at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington, have been working on this case for 15 years for free.

Gurvey said that although the conviction has been overturned, the government can still appeal the judge's decision.

"We hope that they see the light and drop this case," Gurvey said. "This will add an insult to injury if they appeal. It was a travesty to begin with."

Patricia Bell of Stafford County, a longtime friend of both men, said she and her church have never stopped praying for them.

"We've all known they've been innocent from the beginning," she said.

When the murder occurred, Eastridge, an Army veteran who had served in Okinawa, was working as a self-employed mechanic and carpet cleaner.

He lives with his father and currently works at SA Medical Reimbursement in Fredericksburg. His parole guidelines state that he can go only to work, to church on Sundays and to visit his mother at a nursing home once a week.

Sousa was a decorated Army veteran of Vietnam who was employed as an ironworker in Northern Virginia and Washington. Since his release nine years ago, he has had another job as an ironworker in Washington and has been getting to know his daughter and two grandchildren.

Under their parole conditions, the two men are not allowed to contact one another.

Eastridge is active in prayer groups at The Lord's Church.

"I've been blessed with a support group that knew about the case and wanted to help me," he said. "Thank God for answering our prayers."

To reach PORTSIA SMITH: 540/374-5419 psmith@freelancestar.com


Copyright 2007 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2005/052005/05282005/103122

 

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