New DNA and Previously Undisclosed Evidence Points to Innocence of North Carolina Man Serving 80 Years for Double Homicide and Arson
Evidence Strongly Suggests Prosecutor Mike Nifong, Disbarred and Held in Contempt for his Actions in the Duke Lacrosse Case, Allowed Lead Detective to Falsely Testify
(Charlotte, NC; March 11, 2014) — The Innocence Project filed legal papers today urging a Durham County court to overturn the murder and arson convictions of Darryl Anthony Howard based on new DNA and undisclosed evidence pointing to his innocence. In November 1991, two victims, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter, were found nude and strangled on a bed in their burned apartment. Sperm was found in the girl’s anus and injuries to the mother indicated she had been sexually assaulted. DNA testing before trial excluded Howard as the source of the sperm from the daughter, but Assistant District Attorney Mike Nifong told the jury that investigators never suspected either victim was sexually assaulted much less that sexual assaults were involved in the homicides. However, new evidence never disclosed to the defense reveals that the state was told just days after the murders that the crimes involved sexual assault and the victims were murdered by more than one perpetrator who were drug dealers collecting an outstanding debt. New DNA testing points to two different men – neither of whom was Howard – as the real perpetrators of the crime. One of these men has been identified through the CODIS DNA data bank and has an extensive criminal record involving drug crimes and assaults.
“Newly discovered evidence strongly suggests that law enforcement completely disregarded powerful and credible evidence pointing to other suspects in its prosecution of Mr. Howard, who has served nearly 20 years for a crime which mounting evidence now shows he didn’t commit,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This evidence raises deeply disturbing questions about the lengths to which the state was willing to go to secure a conviction.”
On November 27, 1991, fire personnel found the nude and strangled bodies of Doris W. and her 13-year-old daughter Nishonda lying face down on a bed in their burning apartment. The medical examiner collected rape kits on both victims. He found recently deposited sperm in Nishonda’s anus and redness at her vaginal opening. The state crime lab also detected sperm in Nishonda’s vagina. Doris had a ½ inch tear and blood-tinged fluid in her vagina. A toxicology exam showed Doris had recently used cocaine. The medical examiner concluded that Nishonda died as a result of strangulation. Although Doris too was strangled, the medical examiner determined that her cause of death was blunt force trauma to her abdomen. A Durham fire investigator determined that the fire had been intentionally set.
Almost a year after the crimes, police arrested Howard. While Howard was awaiting trial, the state crime lab examined the rape kits. The lab failed to detect any sperm or semen in Doris’ rape kit. DNA testing on sperm found on Nishonda’s vaginal and anal swabs excluded Howard as the source.
At trial, no eyewitness was produced who claimed to have seen Howard commit the crime and no physical evidence linked Howard to the crime scene. Two witnesses claimed to have seen Howard argue with and threaten Doris the day before the crime, but these accounts varied. One of these witnesses recanted his statement after trial, signing a sworn affidavit that Detective Darryl Dowdy coerced him into implicating Howard. The other, Roneka Jackson, was paid $10,000 from a state compensation fund for her testimony. Five months after Howard’s trial, Jackson was murdered with the same modus operandi used in these crimes. Jackson was choked and her body was set on fire by members of the New York Boys, a drug gang that was known for dealing drugs in the victims’ neighborhood. The New York Boys was the drug gang Howard’s defense counsel suggested were probably responsible for the murders.
The state’s main witness against Howard was a prostitute with a lengthy criminal record whom Dowdy threatened with a murder prosecution if she didn’t testify against Howard. On the witness stand, she testified that she knew nothing about the murders. The court declared her a hostile witness and the prosecution was allowed to play an out-of-court statement which she provided to police after she was arrested for prostitution. This statement contradicted the testimony of all of the state’s other witnesses.
Howard did not deny being near the crime scene on the night of the murders. He and his then-girlfriend testified at trial that they were at a friend’s apartment on the night of the murders and went to an apartment near the victim’s apartment building when they saw smoke coming from Doris’ apartment.
Despite the clear evidence of sexual assault – two women found nude on one bed, one with blood and a laceration in her vagina and the second – a 13-year-old girl – with sperm in her anus and vagina – Dowdy testified that the crimes were never investigated and never even suspected to involve a sexual assault. Nifong, who was subsequently disbarred and held in contempt for his misconduct in the Duke Lacrosse case, repeated those claims in his closing arguments to the jury. In his summation, Nifong told the jury that “despite the fact that this case was never investigated as a sexual assault and it was never suspected to be a sexual assault [defense counsel] wants to make it a sexual assault and why, because he knows the defendant never had sex with Nishonda or Doris. So, if he makes you believe that the killer was somebody who had sex with him [sic] then obviously it couldn’t be the defendant.” To account for the sperm recovered from 13-year-old Nishonda’s anus, Dowdy testified, without explanation, that Nishonda was away from home with her boyfriend for almost a week prior to her murder. Nifong argued to the jury that “[h]ow [that sperm] got there I can’t tell you [but] I would submit to you that a 13-year-old who can be gone for five days with her boyfriend is not somebody with whom sex is going to be an unknown subject.”
Despite the lack of credible evidence against Howard and his DNA exclusion from the sperm found in Nishonda, Howard was convicted of murder and arson and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence consistently for more than 22 years.
“The new evidence makes it clear that Mr. Howard’s conviction should be reversed because all the physical evidence points to other perpetrators,” said James P. Cooney, III, a partner with Womble Carlyle, which is assisting the Innocence Project in Mr. Howard’s representation.
In papers filed today, the Innocence Project presents newly discovered DNA evidence that demonstrates that Howard did not commit these crimes. Post-conviction DNA testing on Doris’ rape kit produced a male DNA profile that excluded Howard. That DNA profile was entered in the CODIS DNA database and hit to J. Jones, a career criminal with over 35 prior convictions, who was 15 years old at the time of the crimes. When questioned as to how his DNA could have been found in Doris, Jones falsely claimed that he never met Doris and had consensual sex with Nishonda the night before her murder. Post-conviction DNA testing was also conducted on Nishonda’s vaginal and anal swabs. Testing identified a male profile that excluded Howard and did not match Jones. Because the DNA profile found in Nishonda’s rape kit was only a partial profile, it could not be uploaded into CODIS to identify the real assailant.
Through open file discovery, the Innocence Project discovered a memo that was never disclosed to Howard’s trial counsel that is completely consistent with the new DNA testing. The memo reveals that Durham police received a detailed tip from a confidential informant four days after the murders that the crimes involved sexual assault and the victims were murdered by more than one perpetrator because Doris owed $8000 to drug dealers from “either Philadelphia or New York.” A note on the first page of the memo reads: “Dowdy There may be something to this. I don’t remember any public info on the rape. EES.”
“While the police and prosecutors took pains to build a case against Mr. Howard, it tragically appears that the real perpetrators were allowed to go free and commit other terrible crimes,” said Seema Saifee, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project.
As the Innocence Project argues in its motion, had this document been turned over to the defense at trial, as required, it would have greatly bolstered the defense’s assertions that the victims had been sexually assaulted during the crimes.
A copy of the motion filed today is available at:
The exhibits are at:
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