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 Appeal of Pagan case nixed

December 16, 2005 12:50 am

By PORTSIA SMITH

Stafford County residents Joseph Wayne Eastridge and Joseph Nick Sousa are breathing easier these days.

The two men, former members of the Pagans motorcycle gang who spent more than 20 years in jail for a crime they didn't commit, found out Monday that their legal troubles are behind them. The government has dismissed an appeal that would have reversed their exonerations.

"The truth has finally prevailed," Eastridge told The Free Lance-Star yesterday afternoon. "Tuesday morning, I just broke down and started crying. It was like my soul was weeping."

Tomorrow, they will meet with their lawyers to discuss how the government can give them back the years they lost.

Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

In a highly publicized 1976 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 Washington.

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

Eastridge, who is now 59, served 29 years in prison before being released on parole in March. Sousa, 57, served 20 years.

Both men found out on May 26 that U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer had cleared them by granting a petition for habeas corpus, meaning the constitutional legality of their convictions had been overturned.

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

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.

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. He later admitted to being present during the murder and testified that neither Eastridge, Sousa or Diamen were involved.

Eastridge said he has no hard feelings toward Jones, who could have saved them from jail had he told the truth at the 1976 trial.

"It took a long time, but he came forward and told the truth," he said. "I thank him."

According to court documents, Collyer found that the evidence in the 1976 trial was flawed.

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 received lengthy sentences.

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

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

He now lives with his father and works at SA Medical Reimbursement in Fredericksburg.

Sousa was a decorated Army veteran of the Vietnam War 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.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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


Copyright 2007 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company

http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2005/122005/12162005/153352

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