Before leaving the Lenoir County jail on Wednesday afternoon, Howard Dudley threw his prison uniform on the floor, raised his arms and walked over the clothes.
These were his first steps as a free man in 23 years.
A judge had just freed Dudley, ruling that he had no confidence in the 1992 trial in which the Kinston man was convicted of sexually assaulting his 9-year-old daughter.
Outside the jail, in the crush of family, friends, lawyers and cameras, Dudley smiled broadly and thanked God, his family and his lawyers.
“The only thing I had to fight with was the truth,” he said.
Then Dudley faltered as he remembered his wife and mother, both of whom died while he languished in prison. A sister and sister-in-law struggled to hold Dudley up as his knees buckled.
Dudley, 59, served nearly 24 years for the alleged assault. On Wednesday, he testified that he turned down a plea deal that would have freed him in 1992 because he refused to admit to any wrongdoing when he was innocent.
“I want my name cleared,” Dudley said. “These type of charges are very bad charges. I didn’t commit any of these acts. I need healing, and so does Amy.”
Dudley’s daughter, Amy Moore, had testified at his trial that he had sexually abused her, the only evidence against him. She was 9 at the time. But on Tuesday, Moore told Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons that her previous story was false.
Mental health experts testified that Moore suffers from a host of mental health issues: depression, mental retardation, anxiety disorder and psychotic episodes. Moore is easily led, and her statements to police and social service workers were unreliable, the witnesses testified.
Dudley’s lawyers said she is wracked with guilt from the lies she told that locked up her father for more than two decades.
“Howard Dudley and Amy Moore have been in different prisons for 23 years,” said Spencer Parris, a lawyer for Dudley. “We request freedom for Howard, and by that, freedom for Amy.”
Assistant District Attorney John Newby said the judge should respect the original guilty verdict.
“This case came down to credibility,” Newby said. “In April 1992, 12 jurors were selected. They listened to all the evidence, deliberated and found the defendant guilty. They were in a better position than this court to decide the case.”
An ‘outrageous’ violation
In throwing out Dudley’s conviction, Parsons focused on three flaws in his trial.
▪ Dudley never received copies of social services and court records showing that Amy Moore had given wildly inconsistent and improbable versions of the alleged assault.
“I found this to be an egregious, possibly outrageous … violation,” Parsons said. “This cries out as an injustice to Mr. Dudley.”
▪ Parsons said he was convinced that Moore’s 1992 testimony was false.
▪ And he said Dudley’s trial lawyer failed his client. Nick Harvey had been practicing law full time for just one year. Harvey spent just 27 hours preparing for a trial that carried two potential life sentences. He filed no motions and did not consult any expert witnesses.
“We basically went into trial naked,” Parsons said. “The result is not surprising to me.”
A family reunion
Earlier in the day, Dudley shuffled to the witness stand in ankle chains and testified in a soft voice.
He said that he turned down several chances for freedom – a plea deal in 1992, prison programs that allowed early release – for a simple reason.
“I am not a child molester. I have never been one, and I will never be one,” Dudley said.
Dudley’s plight 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.
The Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke took up Dudley’s case, and in June, Superior Court Judge Paul Jones ordered the hearing that started Tuesday.
Dudley was the final witness at his evidentiary hearing, a minitrial of sorts where his lawyers aimed to prove that he was wrongly convicted.
“I love my daughter Amy,” he said. “I hope that soon I will be able to hug her neck and tell her I love and forgive her.”
Moore, however, was not in court Wednesday, so their reunion would wait. Dudley’s first stop: Bojangles’, for fried chicken covered with Texas Pete.
“Wow,” Dudley said. He stared at the menu board, almost paralyzed by the dozens of choices.
The woman running the counter asked: Would you like a Supreme?
“Yeah, that will work,” Dudley said. “Whatever it is.”
After Dudley sat down to eat, three dozen family members launched a a pop-up party.
“I just want to go home and sleep in a bed,” Dudley said. “And not look at a fence.”
The story so far
Although Amy Moore recanted her testimony shortly after Howard Dudley was convicted in 1992, the wheels of justice sometimes grind slowly. The News & Observer’s four-part series, “Caught in a Lie,” was published in 2005, casting doubt on Dudley’s conviction. The Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke picked up the case and, nearly a decade later, this week’s hearing began.
Joseph Neff, who joined The N&O in 1992, wrote the series on Dudley’s case. Neff, 55, has written extensively about criminal justice. He exposed the misconduct of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case and has investigated several cases of wrongful convictions.