Howard Dudley returned to the Lenoir County Courthouse on Thursday for the first time in 15 years, in the same courtroom and before the same judge who denied his request for freedom in 2000.
Dudley and his lawyers were asking for another chance to prove that his 1992 conviction was built on a lie, that his daughter had made up the story about being molested by her father. In his 23 years in prison, Dudley’s hair has grayed but he has remained adamant about his innocence.
One thing has changed: the evidence presented in court.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Paul Jones ordered a full evidentiary hearing for Dudley. He said he had been hamstrung at the February 2000 hearing, lacking the evidence that supported Amy Moore’s recantation. He didn’t have records from social service workers, her court-appointed advocate and psychologists.
Those records were evidence that the conviction rested entirely on the testimony of an easily led 9-year-old girl who was depressed, mentally retarded and prone to repeating the suggestions of adults.
Jones faulted Dudley’s previous lawyers for not putting on a full case. “The defendant never really got his chance in court.”
Jones turned aside prosecution arguments that the questions had been heard and decided already and that Dudley did not deserve “a second bite at the apple.”
The hearing he ordered will be run by a new judge, who will conduct what is essentially a mini-trial in which Dudley’s lawyers can call witnesses and present evidence. That judge could set Dudley free.
“As Justice Harry Blackmun stated, it is better that a thousand guilty men go free than to allow one innocent man to be convicted,” Jones said.
Dudley comes from a large church-going family. They applauded and prayed as the 45-minute hearing concluded.
“God works in mysterious ways, and I thank God for what he has done in the courtroom today,” said Valeria Williams, a sister-in-law.
James Coleman, a law professor at Duke and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, called Thursday’s hearing “extraordinary. He (the judge) agreed it would be a miscarriage of justice if a judge did not hear all of this evidence.”
Turning down a deal
Thursday was Dudley’s first time in court since he was the subject of a 2005 News & Observer series, “Caught in a Lie.” The stories revealed problems with the case and explored Dudley’s life in prison.
Dudley, 59, was offered a plea bargain before his trial that would have freed him immediately. He turned it down, saying he couldn’t live with himself if he confessed to something he hadn’t done.
He was convicted and sentenced to life plus three years in prison.
There was no physical evidence of abuse. Just months after the trial, Moore told babysitters she lied about her father. She went on to file sworn affidavits and testify in court that her father never molested her.
Moore said she was angry at his strict discipline and jealous of his new wife and their two small children. She said she got the idea of the molestation from the Sally Jessy Raphael show. She has since written governors and prison superintendents asking them to free her father.
Dudley has been a model inmate, the rare prisoner with no infractions after more than two decades in prison. He has worked as an assistant chaplain for most of his time inside. He credits his calm and positive attitude to his faith.
And he says he does not regret having rejected the plea deal in 1992.
“If they offered me a plea bargain right now I’d walk out and go back to my dorm,” Dudley said Wednesday in an interview at Greene Correctional Institution. “Everything that looks like freedom is not always free. I have peace of mind within myself. I have freedom behind the fence. I have freedom within me.”
The next hearing will focus on Amy Moore’s recantation of her sketchy and inconsistent testimony at trial. Recent testing has shown that she suffers from “mild mental retardation,” can be easily led to create false statements and has serious psychological problems.
Investigators from the Department of Social Services and the Kinston police compounded the errors by interviewing Moore in ways rejected by current practices in child psychology, according to legal papers filed by Theresa Newman, one of Dudley’s lawyers from the Duke law school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
In the meantime, Dudley will have to remain patient, Newman said.
“The hearing,” she said, “will be a long time coming.”
Key dates in Dudley’s case
October 13, 1991: Amy Moore, 9, tells babysitter her father, Howard Dudley, had sex with her. Dudley denies allegation to police and social service workers.
January 1992: Paul Porter, the guardian ad litem representing the interests of Amy Moore, concludes that Amy Moore was making up the story. Porter’s concerns are not transmitted to Dudley and his lawyers.
April 22, 1992: Dudley rejects plea agreement and trial begins, ending in conviction and a sentence of life plus three years.
February 2000: Amy Moore testifies that she lied at trial and that her father never molested her. Her mother, Denice Moore, backs her daughter’s testimony. Superior Court Judge Paul Jones denies Dudley’s request for a new trial.
March 2005: News & Observer publishes “Caught in a Lie,” a four-part series on problems with Dudley’s conviction.
2008: Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic takes the case.
June 2015: Superior Court Judge Paul Jones orders a hearing for Dudley.
The story so far
Howard Dudley’s trial began on April 22, 1992, when newspapers and television stations in Eastern North Carolina were consumed by one big story. The day before, Robert Kelly Jr. was sentenced to 12 life sentences in the Little Rascals sexual assault trial, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in state history. Kelly was convicted of 99 counts of sexually assaulting children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton. His convictions were later overturned; he remains free today.
On the same day, the prosecutor offered Dudley the chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge and walk free that day. Dudley refused. The prosecutor, Donald Strickland, later said he could not understand Dudley’s decision. “I would take that plea,” Strickland said. “I would never put my life in the hands of a Lenoir County or Wayne County jury.”
Lawyers retained by Dudley’s family and church made three attempts to win a new trial. None come close to succeeding.