In Darryl Howard’s case, still waiting for justice

Darryl Howard, left, greets his Innocence Project attorney James Cooney III, right, in July before Judge Orlando Hudson ordered a new trial for Howard.
Darryl Howard, left, greets his Innocence Project attorney James Cooney III, right, in July before Judge Orlando Hudson ordered a new trial for Howard. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The wheels of justice grind slowly, and too many people become unnecessary collateral damage. My husband, Darryl Howard, and I are among them.

In 1992, Darryl was arrested and charged with the murders of Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda. Injuries and physical evidence recovered from their bodies provided clear evidence they had both been sexually assaulted. Because of the limited technology available at the time, no DNA was recovered from Doris. However, DNA testing of the evidence recovered from Nishonda proved before trial that Darryl wasn’t the person who raped Nishonda.

To get around this powerful evidence pointing to Darryl’s innocence, the lead prosecutor, Mike Nifong, and Durham Police Detective Darryl Dowdy incredibly took great measures to convince the jury that no sexual assaults took place. They succeeded. Darryl was convicted and has spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Innocence Project took up Darryl’s case and in 2010 retested the evidence recovered from Doris Washington using more advanced DNA technology. The testing was able to get a full DNA profile that excluded Darryl. The male profile was entered into the DNA database and matched to a convicted felon who has an extensive criminal record involving drug crimes and assaults on women. The DNA profile from the evidence in Nishonda’s case belonged to a different man.

Darryl’s lawyers also uncovered a memo completely contradicting Nifong and Dowdy’s claims that sexual assaults were never suspected. Just four days after the slayings, the Durham police received a detailed tip from a confidential informant that the victims were sexually assaulted and murdered over a drug debt. There was a note on the first page of the memo saying, “Dowdy. There may be something to this. I don’t remember any public info on the rape. EES.”

Based on this evidence, Judge Orlando Hudson ruled in May that Darryl’s convictions should be overturned and that he should be released from prison while the prosecution decides whether to retry the case. He said it was the most “horrendous prosecution” that he’d seen in his 30 years practicing law.

When our lawyers first submitted the evidence to Judge Hudson, the prosecution didn’t dispute the facts and said a hearing was unnecessary. But when the judge threw out Darryl’s convictions, the prosecutors appealed, arguing that there should have been a hearing so they could dispute facts. The state has made every effort to keep Darryl in prison during the appeal. Judge Hudson and the Court of Appeals denied the state’s requests. Nine months have passed, and Darryl still isn’t home. Now the N.C. Supreme Court has to decide whether Darryl can come home to his family while the appeal goes forward.

Four weeks ago, Darryl’s son from an earlier relationship died of an apparent drug overdose. While in prison, Darryl lost his sister, two brothers and an uncle. He is heartbroken that he missed out on so much of his son’s life and feels like he lost a part of himself. Because Darryl has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, the streets raised his son. I have to keep reminding him that his son’s death wasn’t his fault. Had Darryl had the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with his son, he might still be alive. Now Darryl will never know his son.

I have lived most of my life as a somewhat single married person. Darryl can’t come home for dinner, and we can’t kick back and watch TV together. I see him once a week for one or two hours, and while we love each other tremendously, it forces us to appreciate small things like our phone calls and the times when we’re allowed to sit next to each other during visits. Darryl has grandchildren he’s eager to spend time, and I want nothing more than to have my husband free and back with me to move forward with his life.

The state has made every attempt to keep Darryl in prison. Had Darryl been released when Judge Hudson overturned his convictions, his son might still be alive today. A man who did nothing doesn’t deserve more time added onto what he’s already lost.

Nannie Howard has been married to Darryl Howard for over 15 years.