DURHAM — Nineteen years have passed since Darryl Anthony Howard buried his head in his hands in a Durham County Superior Court room and sobbed at the three guilty verdicts returned by the jury.
“I didn’t do it,” Howard said pounding his fist against the defense table. “I didn’t kill those girls, I can’t believe it.”
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that has freed 18 wrongly convicted people from death row in its 22 years, has taken up Howard’s case. In documents filed this week in Durham County Superior Court, attorneys Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, and Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer working with him, claim new evidence they’ve uncovered should free Howard from the two second-degree murder convictions and felony arson conviction that brought him an 80-year sentence.
“Darryl Anthony Howard is an innocent man,” the attorneys assert in their motion for appropriate relief.
New DNA evidence, the attorneys say, points to a career criminal known to be associated with The New York Boys, a gang of drug dealers who were in Durham in the 1990s.
The attorneys also contend an informant provided police with a credible tip incriminating someone other than Howard, and though that information was written on a police memo and put in the investigatory file, it very likely was never shared with the defense team.
The Howard case, which the Innocence Project and Cooney took on in 2006, raises many of the same questions about the Durham justice system that came under a critical light during the Duke lacrosse case.
There are allegations that key evidence was withheld from the defendant and accusations that the prosecutor charged ahead with a crumbling case.
Mike Nifong, the former district attorney disbarred and ousted for his misconduct during that case, was the prosecutor for the Howard case.
Daughter warned of danger
Howard, who was 32 when he was convicted, knew the victims. He was no stranger to Durham police then or the public housing complex where the homicides occurred.
Doris Washington, 29, reputedly sold drugs and used cocaine in a public housing complex that became so crime-ridden that the city tore it down a little more than a decade ago.
Nishonda, her 13-year-old daughter, was an eighth-grader at Holton Middle School.
Few Gardens, some 240 units stacked in red-brick, barracks-style buildings, was one of the city’s more blighted neighborhoods. Drug dealers and gang members had transformed the 16 acres in central Durham into a hub of illegal drug dealing.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on Nov. 27, 1991, the Durham Fire Department responded to a call about a fire at the complex. The first-responder found no flames coming from the front of the two-story apartment building. Inside, at the top of the stairwell, heavy smoke made the visibility “absolutely zero.”
Through the haze, though, the responder found two female bodies, both nude, both face down on one bed in the second-floor front bedroom.
Autopsies showed the fire didn’t kill the mother and daughter.
Washington had a 4-inch tear in her liver and extensive internal bleeding, fatal injuries caused by the force of a blunt, wide object against her abdomen. A ligature had been used to strangle her, but that was not the cause of her death. She also had laceration on her forehead, a half-inch long, three bruises on her right cheek and other scratches near her right eye and jaw. She had abrasions on her lower back and a cut on her right arm that was inflicted by a sharp object shortly before she died.
Nishonda died from “strangulation by ligature, such as a cord or rope.” She had scratches and tears on her lips, injuries inflicted shortly before her death, and abrasions on her upper back – signs, according to the pathologist, that the teen struggled with her assailant.
The medical examiners also collected evidence for sexual assault kits, steps they testified are taken when a victim “has obviously” been sexually assaulted or there is “a possibility” that such a crime has occurred.
Howard does not dispute that he was at Few Gardens around the time of the murders. He and Washington had been friends for more than five years. Howard would give Washington rides occasionally, even taking her to look for Nishonda after she ran away from home several times.
Nishonda had complained about a constant stream of strangers parading into and out of the Few Gardens apartment where she and her mother lived.
Washington dealt drugs in the complex and, according to trial testimony, let the well-known New York Boys sell cocaine out of her apartment.
Nishonda was aware of the illicit activities. She broke down in tears four days before her murder as she told the director of the Few Gardens community center that she was frightened for her life. Her mother owed drug dealers money, and she was afraid what might happen.
The girl also expressed her concerns to the Department of Social Services that same day, begging to be removed from her home.
The social worker assigned to investigate the complaint talked with Washington but did not interview Nishonda, violating the department’s policy.
No steps were taken to remove the girl from her home. Homicide investigators learned she had been staying with friends in the days before her death instead of going home at nights to face the danger.
Howard had problems, too
Howard had his problems with Washington, too.
He was critical of how she tried to persuade women around her to either trade sex for drugs or money and often kept a cut for herself.
Howard worried that Washington was trying to prostitute his girlfriend. On the day before the homicides, he was seen and heard outside Washington’s apartment, begging her as she looked down from the second-floor window not to “do” his sweetheart like that. The next day he was back, standing outside asking if his girlfriend was inside. But Washington told him: “I don’t do her like that.”
Howard, a drug dealer who had been banned from Few Gardens, had been arrested at least 70 times for trespassing at the public housing complex, including the week before the homicides.
On the day that Washington and her daughter were killed, he had been at another apartment just a short walk away from the crime scene with his brother and girlfriend.
Drugs were sold at that apartment, too, and Howard claims to have seen some of The New York Boys in the area.
One of The New York Boys lived with Washington, according to the court documents, and Howard and his girlfriend had been sent over to pick up drugs there.
After they knocked on the door and waited for someone to throw drugs out the window, Howard said he noticed smoke coming from the second story. Hearing blaring sirens and knowing he could be thrown in jail if he collected another trespass charge, Howard said he ran with his girlfriend back to the other apartment and remained there through the night.
Howard left the next day to go get food with his girlfriend, but he returned in her car and was arrested there for driving without a license and received another trespass charge. No weapons or fire-starters were found inside the vehicle.
Tipster had key details
It was about six months after the murder that Durham police detective Darryl Dowdy turned his focus to Howard as a lead suspect. Howard was in the hospital, recovering from injuries he suffered after one of The New York Boys shot him in the back several times.
Howard lost a kidney because of the assault, and he became increasingly frustrated as Dowdy asked him more about Doris and Nishonda Washington than the shooting that had incapacitated him.
During that visit, according to the court documents, Howard told Dowdy that he believed The New York Boys had killed the mother and daughter.
That fit with a tip that came from an anonymous informant several days after the Few Garden homicides.
The tipster, according to a Durham police department routing slip dated Dec. 1, 1991, said Doris and Nishonda Washington were “probably murdered” because Doris Washington “owed $8,000 to drug dealers from either Philadelphia or New York.”
The informant also stated that when the dealers came to get their money “they first raped” the mother “before strangling her.” The tipster added that Nishonda “unknowingly walked in” on the scene, so they “killed her.”
The tip was singled out for Dowdy. “There might be something to this. I don’t remember any public info on the rape.”
At the time, according to court documents, The New York Boys were building their drug pipeline along the East Coast, and with two heavily traveled interstates running through it, Durham was a key stop. They also had been charged with crimes of a similar pattern to the Durham homicides and fire.
As the months went by with no arrests, police turned their sights to Howard. He was arrested in November 1992.
At trial, Nifong argued that Howard killed Washington because she owed him money. The prosecutor contended that Howard killed the 13-year-old when she walked in on the violence and set the fire to get rid of evidence.
Woody Vann, the defense attorney for Howard at the 1995 trial, argued that no physical evidence linked his client to the crimes, that police had arrested the wrong person and that whoever had killed the Washingtons had also sexually assaulted the mother and daughter.
There was evidence that both women had been sexually assaulted, but DNA collected from the teenager and mother did not implicate Howard.
Dowdy testified during the trial that police never considered the possibility the women had been sexually assaulted, and Nifong echoed that during his closing statement, a contradiction of the tipster memo.
The court documents submitted by the Innocence Project also show that key witnesses for the prosecution had either been paid or faced charges of their own and offered deals for their testimony.
“Newly discovered evidence strongly suggests that law enforcement completely disregarded powerful and credible evidence pointing to other suspects in its prosecution of Mr. Howard, who has served nearly 20 years for a crime which mounting evidence now shows he didn’t commit,” Scheck said in a statement. “This evidence raises deeply disturbing questions about the lengths to which the state was willing to go to secure a conviction.”
The attorneys hope to persuade the Durham district attorney’s office to agree to vacate the convictions. They have had discussions with Acting District Attorney Leon Stanback, a former Superior Court judge, and with other prosecutors in the office.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1