On this Thanksgiving morning, Howard Dudley will thank God upon waking, as he did every day during 23 years in prison, and every day since he was freed in March.
Dudley gives thanks for the ordinary moments, like sleeping with the lights off or going whole days without hearing a single curse word. He is grateful for the chance to fall in love.
During the years in prison, his wife and mother died. The Kinston man did not raise his two boys, the youngest 7 months old when he was imprisoned.
Yet Dudley doesn’t give off a speck of bitterness. His broad, open smile radiates peace and calm. At a Thanksgiving week lunch at Duke Law School honoring him and a dozen other wrongfully convicted men, he spoke of his two decades in prison, and how he focused on his faith, not the fences and barbed wire.
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“I turned my eyes upwards,” he said. “I searched for God.”
Dudley, 60, was sent to prison for the alleged sexual assault of his daughter, Amy Moore. She was 9 at the time, and her testimony was the only evidence against him.
Dudley maintained his innocence from day one. He refused a plea deal that would have freed him in 1992. He does not regret spending more than two decades in prison on principle.
The News & Observer brought Dudley’s case to light in a 2005 series, Caught in a Lie. The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic took up his case in 2007.
In March, Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons freed Dudley, citing three main reasons: Amy Moore gave false testimony. Dudley’s lawyer performed abysmally. And Dudley never had access to Social Service records that supported his claim of innocence.
“Our system of justice failed Mr. Dudley, period,” Parsons said.
Dudley, through his lawyers at the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, requested a pardon of innocence from Gov. Pat McCrory in June.
A new life
Regardless of what the governor does, Dudley has started his life anew. He has reconnected with his nine brothers and sisters. A local businessman sent him a $100 gift card to Bojangles, his favorite place for fried chicken. When he went to a conference of lawyers, he met the coach of his favorite basketball team, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
He’s begun reconciling with his daughter. Amy Moore is struggling with the guilt and a host of mental health issues: depression, mental retardation, anxiety disorder and psychotic episodes. She has apologized for falsely accusing him of sexual abuse.
“I think the healing process has begun,” Dudley said.
And he finally laid eyes again on Marilyn Johnson. Forty years ago, her oldest brother led a musical group called “The Sunlight Gospel Singers,” and Dudley was the guitar player.
Johnson, a 12-year-old attention seeker, was the annoying young sister who liked to disrupt band practice. Her brother told her to go play outside, which didn’t work until her mother fixed her with the look.
Johnson didn’t think about Dudley until she saw his case on the news in 2008. She wrote him a letter in prison, and they became regular correspondents.
Johnson eventually shared her pain: her cancer, the death of siblings and, hardest to share, a failed marriage.
Two years into the marriage, she accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. Her husband didn’t. Several years later, she read an obituary for an infant girl in the newspaper. She did not know the mother, but her husband was listed as the father.
She felt crushed by the humiliation, but found solace in Psalm 37:4 – “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Johnson wrote a letter to God. She wrote that she wanted to marry again, and promised God she would serve, trust and wait. She sealed the letter in an envelope and slid it in her Bible.
Her correspondence with Dudley became more frequent and deeper.
“He wrote me a letter, asking if we could take things to a next level,” she said. “It really caught me off guard, and I told Howard I would pray on it and get back to him.”
When five months passed with no reply, Dudley had his answer. He wrote what they refer to as “the red letter,” written in black ink but with the most important section in red.
“I told her she should not build up a wall,” said Dudley, the man locked behind walls at the time.
The correspondence continued, but Johnson said she continued to hold back. After his release from prison in March, they did not seek each other out.
But another brother in a gospel band brought them full circle in August. Her youngest brother invited her to a service featuring his group, Clay Johnson and Unity. He didn’t mention Dudley would be playing guitar. Dudley was reaching into his pickup truck for his equipment when Marilyn Johnson came up from behind.
“I said, ‘Mr. Dudley?’ And he said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and he turned around and it was the first time we saw each other in 40 years.”
The rest is history. They talked every day. She introduced him to the computer and Facebook. Their phone calls would go to three or four in the morning, even when Johnson had to be at work at 8 a.m. at the Bijur Delimon factory in Kinston.
Both say every conversation is infused with faith. She is an elder and a preacher at the Vine Swamp Church of Christ; he leads a youth group at The New Praise and Worship Deliverance Church.
They will break Thanksgiving bread together. She has tasked him with making lemonade and deviled eggs.
“I asked her for an apron so I look like I know what I’m doing,” Dudley said.
They plan to get married but have not set a date. At some point before then, Marilyn Johnson will finally remove her letter to God from her Bible.
“At the appropriate time, I’ll give that letter to Howard and let him open it, and read it,” she said.