After spending 23 years in prison, Howard Dudley rendered a verdict on his first 48 hours of freedom.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” he said in a telephone interview. One could hear Dudley’s smile over the telephone.
On Wednesday, a judge threw out Dudley’s 1992 conviction, saying he had no confidence in the trial in which the Kinston man was convicted of sexually assaulting his 9-year-old daughter.
So much has changed during the 23 years Dudley spent in prison. He’s relearning how to order in restaurants. He thinks he’s mastered the art of dialing a cellphone and is ready to get one of his own. He’s been shopping with family for clothes, dining at the Golden Corral and visiting the cemetery where his wife and mother are buried.
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He looks forward to meeting soon with his daughter, Amy Moore, whose false testimony as a 9-year-old at the 1992 trial sent him to prison. Moore, who struggles with mental retardation and several other mental health issues, testified this week that the allegations were a lie. Dudley testified that he loved his daughter and forgave her.
“I’m ready,” Dudley said. “I would like to go out with my mother-in-law and see Amy.”
Dudley was the subject of a 2005 News & Observer series, Caught in a Lie, which chronicled the problems with his case. The series prompted lawyers at Duke’s Clinic on Wrongful Convictions to take up his case. They succeeded in winning his freedom Wednesday.
Since then, Dudley has enjoyed some basic pleasures.
“It felt good to cut the lights out and sleep in the dark in a real bed,” Dudley said.
What is the status of Dudley’s case?
Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons vacated Dudley’s conviction. Dudley is still charged with a crime. District Attorney Matthew Delbridge can make one of three decisions: appeal Parsons’ decision; retry Dudley; or dismiss the charges.
Pursuing an appeal or retrial faces huge obstacles. Under direct questioning by the judge, Moore testified that she lied and that her father had never raped or touched her inappropriately. Dismissal seems the likeliest next step.
Delbridge did not return phone calls for comment Friday.
What is Howard Dudley’s next step?
Once charges are dismissed, Dudley will seek a pardon of innocence from Gov. Pat McCrory, according to Theresa Newman, one of Dudley’s lawyers. Parsons’ order strongly supports a pardon, she said.
A pardon of innocence would allow Dudley to collect $50,000 for each year he spent wrongfully imprisoned, up to a maximum of $750,000.
The money pales in importance next to the pardon itself, Newman said: “The most important thing to Howard is the Dudley family name and his honor.”
Other exonerees, like Greg Taylor, Dwayne Dail and Alan Gell, have received substantial settlements after filing lawsuits. Can Dudley file a similar lawsuit?
Newman said such a lawsuit would be difficult to win. The false allegations were brought by Dudley’s daughter. Dudley won’t sue her.
Parsons ruled that Nick Harvey, Dudley’s trial lawyer, did not provide adequate legal representation, but the statute of limitations has run its course and Dudley wouldn’t sue the lawyer anyway. Prosecutors did not hand over favorable evidence at trial, evidence that ultimately freed Dudley. But the prosecutors did not have the evidence in their files. Further cutting off that avenue is the fact that prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity for their official acts.
The Kinston Police Department could be the target of a lawsuit, but the police would likely put all the blame on the performance of Dudley’s trial lawyer.
“It seems to be a bit of a long shot,” said Spencer Parris, one of Dudley’s lawyers who has filed similar lawsuits in the past.
Parsons, in his ruling, said the injustice was a failure of the entire system.
“I’m not blaming any individual; from the District Attorney’s Office, certainly not; police department, Social Services, or Mr. Harvey,” Parsons said. “Our system of justice failed Mr. Dudley, period.”
Why did it take so long?
The News & Observer wrote about Dudley’s case in 2005. Duke’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic accepted the case in 2008. Newman, one of the clinic’s lawyers, said Dudley’s case was extremely complicated. It did not involve DNA, and the main task was to prove a crime did not occur. The clinic and its law students reinvestigated the entire case and developed the expert evidence on Amy Moore’s mental state and why her recantation was more believable than her original testimony.
And the lawyers had to get over a very high hurdle: Dudley had already gone to court three times to try to overturn his conviction. Prosecutors argued he did not deserve another bite at the apple.
“When it’s your client’s last chance, it has to be an A+ job,” Newman said. “It has to be perfect.”
Duke filed its motion in 2013. In 2015, a judge ordered a hearing with evidence and testimony. That hearing took place this week, and Dudley walked free.
Does the system need fixing?
Parsons pointed out in his ruling that reforms have changed the system since 1992. Changes in state law mandate that defendants receive all the evidence in the possession of police and prosecutors. The office of Indigent Defense Services, established after Dudley’s conviction, would appoint an experienced lawyer to a case involving a life sentence. Dudley’s lawyer was a rookie with a year of law practice under his belt. Police and social workers have overhauled and improved the practice of interviewing children about allegations of sexual abuse.
Still, Newman said it would be helpful for the justice system to examine what went wrong, in a similar way that the aviation industry learns from investigations into plane crashes by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It would be good to put Howard Dudley’s case on the table so everyone can talk about it,” Newman said.
Have any public officials apologized to Dudley?
Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff