After almost 24 years in prison, Howard Dudley returns to court Tuesday with the hope that a judge will agree that Dudley’s 1992 conviction was built on a lie.
Dudley and his lawyers will argue that his daughter, Amy Moore, had made up the story about being molested by her father.
Dudley has been adamant about his innocence from the start. He refused to plead guilty or take a plea deal to a lesser charge in 1992 that would have allowed him to avoid prison altogether.
Dudley, 59, said he has never regretted that decision. And he has long since forgiven his daughter, who was 9 when she accused her father of molesting her.
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“I would love to put my arms around her and tell her I love her and I forgive her,” Dudley said in an interview in June. “I’m sorry she’s gone through all the hurt all these years, having to endure needless pain.”
Dudley was the subject of a 2005 News & Observer series. The stories revealed problems with the case and explored Dudley’s life in prison.
There was no physical evidence of abuse. The only evidence against Dudley was the testimony of his daughter. 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 written governors and prison superintendents, asking them to free her father. Nothing worked.
Help at Duke
In 2008, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at the Duke University School of Law took up Dudley’s case.
In June, the Duke lawyers persuaded Superior Court Judge Paul Jones to order a full evidentiary hearing, a sort of mini-trial where lawyers will put on witnesses and evidence arguing that Dudley was wrongfully convicted.
Prosecutor Michael Delbridge opposed the new hearing in June. He could not be reached for comment.
Dudley had a similar hearing in 2000, when Jones ruled against him. Last summer, Jones said he had been hamstrung then and lacked 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 said in court in June.
Jones removed himself from the case. Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons of Sampson County will preside over the hearing, which could go as long as three days.
The hearing will likely 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 Theresa Newman, one of Dudley’s lawyers.
Dudley’s trial opened on the same day that a jury in neighboring Pitt County convicted Robert Kelly Jr. of 99 counts of sexually assaulting children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in state history. Kelly’s convictions were later overturned; he remains free today.
In prison, Dudley has been a model inmate with the extraordinary record of 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 in a June interview. “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.”