DURHAM, N.C. – Evidence of prosecutorial misconduct that could exonerate a man who has spent 21 years in prison for a double murder will be at center stage during a hearing in a North Carolina courtroom this week.
A judge two years ago threw out Darryl Howard's 1995 conviction but the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled a new hearing was needed. He remains imprisoned.
The hearing starting Monday could highlight whether evidence that could have proved Howard's innocence was withheld by prosecutors and police.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson said in 2014 he remembered observing Howard's murder trial as it was under way. He called it "a horrendous prosecution" that ignored that "there was extremely credible, strong evidence that Mr. Howard did not commit" the crime.
Howard was on the verge of being released on bail pending a retrial until Attorney General Roy Cooper's office stepped in. As the chief attorney for the state, Cooper is responsible for defending criminal prosecutions when they are challenged. Howard, 54, is being held in medium security at a Warren County prison.
Expected to testify at the hearing is former Durham County district attorney Mike Nifong, whom Hudson said in his 2014 ruling failed to share with defense attorneys a police memo and other evidence that pointed to suspects other than Howard.
The Howard prosecution isn't the first to tarnish Nifong. He was disbarred in June 2007 for his handling of the tumultuous Duke University lacrosse case, in which three Duke athletes were accused of raping a stripper hired to entertain a team party. State investigators later determined Nifong lied and buried evidence proving the lacrosse players were innocent. North Carolina Cooper declared the players victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."
More than a decade before the 2006 Duke case was the Howard case. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison in 1995 after being convicted in the strangling of 29-year-old Doris Washington and her daughter, 13-year-old Nishonda. Both were sexually assaulted, and their apartment was burned. Witnesses who lived in the same housing project testified they saw Howard at the crime scene.
Later DNA testing of samples taken from the two bodies showed sperm left by a convicted felon who has a history of drug dealing and violence against women, Howard's attorneys from the New York-based Innocence Project said in court filings.
"The State does not contest the scientific accuracy or reliability of the post-conviction DNA testing in this case. The State does not contest that post-conviction DNA testing identified foreign male DNA that was not detected and could not have been discovered with the exercise of reasonable diligence at the time of Howard's trial," wrote Charlotte attorney Jim Cooney and Barry Scheck, who was part of retired NFL star O.J. Simpson's defense team.
It wasn't until a few years ago that Howard's attorneys found a Durham police memo about an informant's tip that the convicted killer's attorney said wasn't turned over before the murder trial, the Court of Appeals said. The police tipster knew that the women were raped before being killed, which investigators hadn't told the public, a police captain noted. The informant added that the women were probably killed because Doris Washington allowed drug dealers to sell from her apartment, and they blamed her for $8,000 worth of missing drugs.
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