Convicted robber Erick Daniels won another chance to prove his innocence claims last week when a superior court judge granted him a hearing that could overturn his conviction and lead to a new trial. The move came just days after Daniels' appellate attorney, Carlos Mahoney, filed a lengthy appeal, known as a motion for appropriate relief, on Daniels' behalf.
"I get that ring of truth by what's been filed by Mahoney," says Durham's Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who granted the hearing. "I want to have a hearing to see if the defendant can prove those allegations, and I also want to see the state's response to those allegations."
In 2001, a jury convicted Daniels of robbing and burglarizing the home of Ruth Brown, a police department employee; a judge sentenced Daniels to 10 to 14 years in prison. Former assistant district attorney Freda Black won the case without a shred of incriminating or physical evidence, relying instead on the victim's eyewitness testimony. Daniels, who was 14 at the time of the robbery and 15 at trial, has maintained his innocence. A 2007 investigation by the Independent, "Stolen youth," supported his claims, and Mahoney included the story to support some of his legal arguments.
His motion seeks a new trial on three grounds. First, Mahoney argues that Daniels' original trial attorney, Robert Harris, botched the case so badly that Daniels would have been acquitted of the charges if he had been represented by a more competent lawyer. Mahoney supported the claim with affidavits from defense lawyers C. Scott Holmes and Thomas Maher, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who both reviewed the trial transcripts and determined that Harris provided ineffective counsel, in violation of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.
Harris disputes the challenges to his representation, but says he believes Daniels is innocent.
Mahoney's motion also presents new evidence that convicted bank robber Samuel Strong attempted to confess to robbing Brown, and that then-prosecutor Freda Black failed to notify the defense of that confession—allegations first put forth in the Indy's investigation. Black, a candidate for the Durham district attorney, defends her handling of the case.
"I was approached about a year after the trial was completed and they told me there was somebody in federal prison in another state who said he had committed the crime," Black says. "I said if that it is the case, you can get me an affidavit and I would be happy to take a look. I never heard from them again."
Durham District Attorney David Saacks, who will now handle the case for the state, said he couldn't comment because he hasn't seen the motion.
Mahoney says he is optimistic that Hudson will grant Daniels a new trial.
Daniels' case raises more than enough questions, contradictions and problems to constitute reasonable doubt. Brown testified that Daniels was one of two masked gunmen who walked into her home and stole a purse containing thousands of dollars. But she described the first gunman to walk into her home—the gunman she swore was Daniels—as a short, light-skinned black male who wore his hair in cornrow braids. Only 14 at the time of the robbery, Daniels was indeed short. But he is dark-skinned and has never had hair long enough to braid.
Moreover, the lead detective in the case, Delois West, wrote two chronologies of her investigation—one original handwritten log and a subsequent typed report—and there are key discrepancies between the two that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Brown's identification. Court records also indicate that Brown was running an illegal gambling house on the date of the robbery—information that dramatically broadens the list of suspects and questions Brown's credibility.
Prosecutor Black tried a second defendant, Khalid Abdallah, with the same evidence she used to convict Daniels, two years after Daniels' trial. Abdallah, represented by assistant public defender Shannon Tucker, was acquitted.
"One of the cases turned out right for the defendant with pretty much the same facts," Hudson says. "How did that go wrong in the Daniels case? It is a red flag to the judge to see what happened."
Hudson issued an order directing Mahoney and Saacks to schedule a hearing within six months. The timing largely depends on how quickly Mahoney can subpoena witnesses. Mahoney plans to subpoena everyone named in the motion.
"I feel justice is finally going to be served," says Karen Daniel, Erick's mother, who spells her last name differently than her son. "My son will have his day in court. The truth will finally come out."