Darryl Anthony Howard had heard Judge Orlando Hudson vacate the two murder verdicts that a jury returned in 1995 once before.
In the same courthouse in 2014, Hudson came to the same conclusion that he did Wednesday – that new DNA evidence that had not been presented to the jury that heard Howard’s case more than two decades ago was enough to raise serious doubts about the fairness of the convictions.
It was not until Hudson ordered Howard freed from prison while prosecutors weigh whether to try him again that the flood of emotions rising inside him broke through.
“I don’t see any reason why he can’t be freed today,” Hudson said to attorney Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project who helped bring Howard’s claims of innocence to the Durham courtroom.
With tissue balled up in his hand, Howard dabbed quietly at the tears welling in his eyes while the attorneys continued to discuss his case with the judge.
Howard has maintained since 1991 that he did not kill Doris Washington, 29, and her daughter Nishonda, 13, who were found naked and dead on a bed in a smoke-filled public housing apartment.
In a three-day hearing this week, Scheck, Seema Saifee, a staff attorney for the Innocence Project, and Jim Cooney, a Charlotte attorney who helped with the case, argued that not only did they have DNA evidence of another man’s sperm inside Washington but they also had evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
Before the trial in 1995, the defense team argued, Durham police and Mike Nifong, then an assistant district attorney assigned to the case, withheld key evidence from the attorneys who defended Howard at trial.
Investigators had DNA evidence at trial collected from the mother and daughter and compiled in sexual assault kits that were tested by the state crime lab.
When the tests excluded Howard as a DNA match, Nifong – who since has been disbarred for his prosecutorial misconduct in the Duke lacrosse case – and a lead detective said the case had never been investigated as a sexual assault.
But a second look at the case showed that police and prosecutors had a police memo in their files that contradicted that.
“A reasonable juror, a reasonable juror would find beyond reasonable doubt that here is a reasonable doubt to the guilt of Darryl Howard in these cases,” Hudson said before vacating the convictions Wednesday.
Hudson also noted an irony about the case that Scheck raised on Wednesday during the hearing. Not only had Nifong, a prosecutor who had a heavy hand in the case, been disbarred, but another disbarred Durham District Attorney, Tracey Cline, issued a key directive in the case when she told police there was no need to do an investigation into the DNA match that linked Washington to a man named Jermeck Jones.
That link was first revealed in a federal database match after Jones was imprisoned in Tennessee for crimes including possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, drug possession and reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon.
“We have a prosecutor who investigated this case who was disbarred,” Scheck pointed out in a closing argument, “and we have a former prosecutor who ordered no investigation who is disbarred.”
The hearing brought Nifong back to the Durham courthouse under a subpoena from Howard’s defense team.
But because Durham District Attorney Roger Echols decided midday Wednesday that he would not appeal Hudson’s rulings, the defense team did not proceed with its plans to call Nifong to testify as part of their claims that prosecutorial misconduct also played a role in Howard’s inability to get a fair trial in 1995.
Echols said late Wednesday afternoon that he planned to review the case to consider whether to abandon plans for a second trial, as the defense has asked him to do.
“The DNA evidence alone is so overwhelming that our friends in the prosecutors’ office, when they reflect on this case, they won’t retry it,” Scheck told reporters.
Howard, who was freed to walk out of prison for the first time in more than two decades shortly after 3 p.m., told a group of reporters gathered outside the Durham County Detention Center that he would leave those issues to the team of attorneys he had just praised and hugged.
Howard had plans for his first night of freedom, the first time he had been able to be with his wife since their marriage several years after he went to prison.
Nannie Howard, a Durham resident, had visited her husband once a week for years. But Wednesday was the first time she got to hug him without first having to make arrangements with prison officials.
Howard had signed all the paperwork that allowed him to step outside onto Durham’s downtown sidewalks and walk away, hand-in-hand with his wife.
But before the two made it out into the humid August heat, they melted into each other’s arms in the lobby of the detention center and hugged each other so strongly that they fell back against the cinder block walls.
“You’re warm,” Howard said as he stroked his wife’s face.
“He’s very huggable,” Nannie Howard told reporters a few minutes later as the couple prepared to start a new chapter, a life together outside prison walls. “You know you’re in the moment, but your brain can’t really process it.”
As the Howards and their friends and family celebrated, Scheck and Cooney talked about some of the problems and changes in the justice system highlighted by their case.
“Thank God this wasn’t a capital case,” Scheck said, raising concerns about the death penalty and the wrongfully convicted sentenced to capital punishment.
Had there not been advancement in DNA testing and had Durham police not videotaped an interview with Jones in 2011 – evidence that was not turned over to the defense team for five years – Howard would not have had as much evidence to present a narrative very different from the one that ended up in his conviction before Judge Hudson.
“This is the best advertisement you can find for videotaping interrogations,” Scheck said.
Cooney added: “What this says is that reforms that have been put in place in the last years lead to a just system. …We’ve got to keep adding to those changes.”
Howard was excited about seeing his grandchildren and “getting on with his life,” and said he was not angry.
“There’s no time to be angry,” Howard said. “I’m thankful this is over. …I’m just happy right now.”