Shadows of a '74 slaying

June 4, 2005 1:09 am


A week has passed since Stafford residents Joseph Wayne Eastridge and Joseph Nick Sousa were exonerated in a 1974 murder, but their legal troubles may not be over.

Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said the government has yet to decide whether to appeal the reversed conviction of a murder case involving the Pagans motorcycle gang.

"The decision has not been made," he said. "The government has 60 days from the day of the judge's opinion."

He said it won't take the full two months to decide and will base it on "whether we think the decision needs to be overturned."

In 1976, Eastridge and Sousa were convicted of the first-degree murder of a 26-year-old man, Johnnie Battle.

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, served 29 years in prison before being released on parole in March. Sousa, 57, had served 20 years.

Both men found out last 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.

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

 Another Pagans member, Stephen C. Jones 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 stabbed 17 times.

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, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer found that the evidence in the 1976 trial was flawed and did not convict other parties involved.

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.

Eastridge lives in Stafford 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.

Since Sousa's parole release nine years ago, he has worked as an ironworker in Washington and has been getting to know his daughter and two grandchildren.

Eastridge and Sousa have not had a conversation with each other since 1987.

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

 Sousa also said the judge signed an order this week that would do away with their parole restriction, but he is waiting to get the OK from his lawyers before speaking to Eastridge.

"I'd like to talk to him," Sousa said yesterday afternoon. "But I don't even know what I would say."

To reach PORTSIA SMITH: 540/374-5419

Copyright 2007 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.


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