Darryl Howard, who spent twenty-one years in jail for a crime he said he did not commit, doesn't have to worry about whether or not he'll once again face a jury for the 1991 murders of Doris and Nishonda Washington.
The fifty-four-year-old was convicted of the murders in 1995. Howard has maintained his innocence, and in 2014, Judge Orlando Hudson ordered Howard released and granted a new trial. But after the state appealed, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Howard would receive a new evidentiary hearing to determine if his case could be retried.
On Wednesday, Hudson came to the same conclusion he did in 2014—he vacated the murder convictions, called for a new trial, and freed Howard from jail. The Durham County District Attorney's Office did not appeal Hudson's decision.
On Friday, Howard received more good news—his case would be dismissed.
This week, during a three-day hearing, Howard's attorneys presented DNA evidence that matched to a man—Jermeck Jones—who, when he took the stand, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In 2011, DNA testing—not available during the original trial—found that semen left at the crime scene implicated Jones. He told police at the time he was dating Nisonda Washington. His semen was found in Doris Washington. Experts testified in court that Doris Washington had sex shortly before she was killed.
At the time of Howard's conviction, the lead detective on the case said he didn't suspect the murders involved sexual assault (even though there were signs of sexual trauma) and didn't investigate them as such. Disbarred former district attorney Mike Nifong, who prosecuted the case, argued that any sperm found on Nishonda Washington was the product of consensual sex.
But a police memo—which wasn't turned over to Howard's attorneys in the 1990s—based on statements from a confidential informant, showed otherwise. The memo said the Washingtons might have been murdered—and the women raped—by a New York street gang, to which Doris owed an $8,000 drug debt.
Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols told the INDY
Friday the decision to dismiss came after analyzing the available evidence and determining it wouldn't be sufficient to garner a conviction. The dismissal paperwork was filed early Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m happy or troubled," Echols says. "Certainly, Mr. Howard had issues in his motion that should be litigated, and that happened. Each side made their arguments, the court made its ruling that there is little to no chance of success on appeal, which is why we’re not appealing it. … There were legitimate issues that both side argued. And I can accept the court’s ruling and make what I feel is the best decision for the case, the office, our local system under the law."
The dismissal comes the same day the Associated Press published a report about the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence working with Echols and his office to review cases where those convicted say they're innocent. Echols told the the center that he'll investigate any claims it finds credible. So far, he said, there's at least a dozen that will be brought to him for review.