Last Friday afternoon, Erick Daniels walked out of the Durham County Jail into the sunshine, threw up his arms and screamed, "I'm free."
At 22, Daniels went home for the first time since eighth grade.
About four hours earlier, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson had declared Daniels innocent, wrongly convicted of robbing a police department employee, for which he had been sentenced to 10 to 14 years in prison. In his ruling, Hudson admonished local police and prosecutors for their shoddy investigative work, which, along with other botched cases, has tarnished the reputation of the Durham justice system.
After seven years and several unsuccessful appeals, Daniels did not expect to go free that day. Hudson had granted Daniels, who was in the Warren County Correctional Institute, a hearing to determine whether he should have a new jury trial. Dismissing the charges was an option, albeit an unlikely one.
But armed with a new strategy, Daniels' attorney, Carlos Mahoney, spent nearly two days dismantling the shaky evidence presented at the original trial. He unveiled new evidence that showed Daniels was innocent, and further demonstrated that Daniels' original attorney, Robert Harris, had not represented him effectively. A 2007 investigation by the Indy, "Stolen youth," supported Daniels' claims of innocence, revealed flaws in the original trial and uncovered new evidence in the case.
Daniels had so much faith in Mahoney that he rejected a last-ditch plea agreement offered by Durham County Prosecutor Mitch Garrell that would have freed him. Under the terms, Daniels would have denied his involvement in the crime but acknowledged the existence of incriminating evidence, in exchange for time served. However, Daniels would have forever been branded a felon.
"I didn't do it," Daniels said later in an interview. "Worst-case scenario, I serve three more years. I knew I could do three more years. I said, 'Let's see if I can make it to trial.'"
In the end, there was no trial. Hudson was convinced that Daniels should be exonerated.
"I would order a new trial if I were satisfied that this defendant committed this crime and the state could prove it," Hudson told the court. "I have no confidence the defendant committed these charges."
When Daniels entered the courtroom Thursday morning, his wrists and ankles shackled, it was the first time he had been in the Durham County Courthouse since his conviction in 2001. At the original trial, Freda Black, then an assistant district attorney, built her case on the testimony of the victim, Ruth Brown. Brown, a police department employee, had picked Daniels' face from among 105 photos in a junior high yearbook based on, she said, the shape of his eyebrows.
Brown testified that Daniels was one of two masked gunmen who walked into her home and stole a purse containing thousands of dollars in cash. However, there was no physical evidence. At the time of his conviction, Daniels tried to escape after the guilty verdict was announced, and screamed "Mommy" as deputies escorted him away.
Seven years later, Daniels, with a close-cropped beard and mustache, is no longer a boy. And Mahoney was nothing like his original lawyer at trial. In a carefully worded opening statement, Mahoney asked Hudson to grant Daniels a new trial, not dismiss the charges, because that's what he thought the evidence would support. But there were surprises in the testimony that followed.
Mahoney thought his strongest argument was that Harris provided ineffective counsel to Daniels at the original trial. Almost everything Harris had done was on the record, in the trial transcript and in appeals documents, so Mahoney directed the court to Harris' numerous legal errors.
For example, Harris had allowed Daniels' juvenile record—a marijuana possession conviction—into evidence, which is not allowed.
"You're aware that juvenile adjudications are not admissible under the laws of evidence?" Mahoney asked Harris, who was on the stand.
"Did you object?" Mahoney asked.
That was only the beginning. For more than an hour, grilled by Mahoney, Harris testified that his representation of Daniels was flawed. Combined, the errors painted a false picture of Daniels as a violent delinquent capable of anything.
But the bombshell landed when Mahoney sought to prove the second claim of his appeal: There was new evidence proving Daniels' innocence.
Harris had represented another man, Samuel Strong, who, shortly after Daniels was convicted, confessed to Harris that he'd robbed Brown. But Harris never confirmed Strong's confession, citing attorney-client privilege. The allegation had never been entered into evidence.
Shortly before last week's hearing, Harris and his attorney, Ralph Frasier, filed a last-minute motion to quash Harris' subpoena, citing attorney-client privilege, a legal move that, if successful, would have released Harris from his obligation to testify about Strong's confession. Hudson overruled the motion.
"Attorney-client privilege is sacred—there is no question about that," Hudson said later. "The bottom line is the interest of justice. I felt like he had information that was pertinent to whether Mr. Daniels was going to finish his sentence."
Mahoney asked Harris under oath if he had received information that could exonerate Daniels. Hudson ordered Harris to answer.
"Yes," Harris said. "I encouraged the source of that information to come forward. I encouraged him to get an attorney. The information I had was that Sam Strong committed this robbery and Freda Black knew about it."
Mahoney addressed the circumstantial evidence linking Strong to the robbery. Strong was best friends with Daniels' codefendant, Khalid Abdallah. Strong and Abdallah had committed a string of armed robberies together.
Mahoney also introduced a document showing that Strong is 5-feet-4-inches tall, has light skin and wore his hair in cornrow braids. At 145 pounds, he had a slight build. That fits Brown's description of the first gunman to enter her home—the gunman she swore was Daniels.
Moreover, Brown testified at trial that the first gunman attacked her with a silver .22 revolver. Mahoney introduced evidence that Strong was later arrested with a silver revolver in his possession. Strong is in federal prison on bank robbery charges.
Black took the stand and testified that she knew about Strong's involvement in the crime, which Hudson would rule was tantamount to withholding exculpatory evidence—the third claim in Mahoney's appeal.
"Some time after his conviction, somebody came to me and said there's somebody that was in federal prison that confessed to robbing Ruth," she said. Yet, she tried to justify her withholding of the evidence. "I wasn't given a name. If you show me a notarized affidavit, I will look into getting the case reopened. I didn't consider it evidence because I never saw it in writing."
Garrell attempted to minimize the weight of the new evidence about Strong, arguing that it had not been considered by a jury. He also tried to poke holes in Mahoney's arguments about ineffective counsel. "Attorneys are not required to make all decisions right," Garrell said. "They are required to meet the standard of effective assistance of counsel"—a standard, he argued, that Harris had met despite the legal missteps.
Garrell also asked Black if anything happened at trial that led her to believe Harris' representation fell outside a broad definition of effective assistance.
"I thought he did a very good job," she replied.
Garrell asked Hudson to only consider one of Mahoney's claims—that Harris provided ineffective assistance.
Instead, Hudson strongly rebuked Durham police and prosecutors. "People are starting to question in Durham the degree to which the prosecutor's office and the police department are tracking down cases where there are leads for other people in the crime. That's a serious problem when the court has to deal with it. If you don't turn over these leads and find out what's under them, sometimes they lead to the wrong people. I don't want that to be a problem in the Durham Police Department or in the prosecutor's office."
With those words, people in the courtroom began to cry, as they sensed where Hudson was going.
Garrell argued that the new evidence about Strong should be presented in front of a jury and subject to cross-examination, but Hudson broke in again.
"That newly discovered evidence is really supplemental evidence that shows Daniels did not commit this crime and someone else did. Erick Daniels did not look anything like the person Ruth Brown describes. Sam Strong did. The description fits perfectly."
The sobs grew louder. Daniels buried his head in his arms, as if he could not bear to watch.
"Unfortunately for the state," Hudson continued, "Ms. Black had nothing in this case except for the identification based on a sixth-grade yearbook. My finding is going to be that Mr. Mahoney has proven his case. He prevails on every single ground."
Hudson ordered Daniels' release. People in the courtroom erupted, shouting. Still shackled, Daniels leaned over the railing and hugged his family.
After the trial, Garrell relayed the news of Hudson's judgment to Brown, who did not attend the second day of the proceedings. "She was not pleased with this, but whether pleased right now or not, at least there would be no continuing controversy," Garrell said later.
Brown had agreed to the plea agreement. "The plea was something I had thought about as I reviewed the materials," Garrell said. "The recognition on my part and the district attorney's office was that it was not a trial that did not have problems. I wouldn't offer it if I didn't think it was the right result. Given what's happened, it's clear he made the right decision."
Former prosecutor Black stood by her conviction. "Twelve people found him guilty," she said. "I don't like questioning the jury's verdict. But I don't think I'm in a position to question Hudson's decision."
For now, Daniels' legal battles are over. "At this point it's premature to talk about continuing legal actions," Mahoney said about the possibility of pursuing compensation for Daniels' wrongful conviction. "The most important thing is for Erick to get adjusted to his new life and get back in touch with his family."
It took the Department of Correction and the county jail several hours to process Daniels' release. He left the jail defiantly, pushing past television cameras and reporters, holding his jacket over his face until he climbed into his sister's car. He went home to a dinner of grilled chicken with brown rice and salad. After a couple of restless nights, he woke up Monday morning feeling refreshed. "It's not a dream," he said. "I'm really free. I'm really home."