Darryl Howard’s voice was thick with anguish as he talked about the Durham City Council’s decision to not pay him $6 million that a federal jury awarded after he spent decades in prison for two murders he did not commit.
A jury concluded last December, at the end of a nearly month-long civil rights trial, that a police detective had manufactured evidence that resulted in Howard spending more than two decades behind bars after he was wrongly convicted for the murders of a 29-year-old woman and her 13-year-old daughter in 1991.
“All those years sitting in prison,” Howard says. “All the things that I have seen that will never leave my mind.”
Court records show that the victims, Doris Washington and her child, Nishonda, had both been raped before their murders inside of their apartment at the former Few Gardens public housing complex. Doris died of blunt force trauma to her abdomen. Nishonda had been strangled.
On March 31, 1995, Durham County superior court judge James Spencer sentenced Howard to serve 80 years in prison after he was convicted for the second-degree murders of the Washingtons.
Howard was also convicted of first-degree arson and sentenced to an additional 40 years after prosecutors contended he lit a fire in the apartment before fleeing.
On December 1, 2016, after Howard had served more than 23 years behind bars, Durham senior resident superior court judge Orlando Hudson ordered that his convictions be vacated and that he be released from prison following a DNA analysis that indicated he was innocent.
On April 30, 2021, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper issued Howard a pardon of innocence. He received $750,000 in compensation.
“There was a lot of abuse,” Howard says about the time he spent locked up. “I worked in segregation, where you see the worst in prison. I used to think, ‘Why, God? Why did you choose something for me like this?’”
On December 1, 2021, a jury in the U.S. District Court’s Middle District’s Durham division deliberated for about an hour before determining that former Durham police detective Darrell Dowdy had violated Howard’s civil rights when he fabricated evidence and demonstrated “a bad-faith failure to investigate” the double murders.
Howard says he learned in April that Durham City Council members went into “a closed session” and decided they weren’t going to pay him.
“Durham decided 24 years of my life wasn’t worthy,” he says. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Criticism of the city council’s decision has been intense with pleas from residents to get council members to go on record as to why they decided not to pay Howard.
The INDY reached out to Durham mayor Elaine O’Neal and her fellow council members Leonardo Williams, Jillian Johnson, and Mark-Anthony Middleton, who are all Black Americans, along with Javiera Caballero, the first Latinx person elected to the city council.
“They have all complained in the past about systemic racism,” says Brad Bannon, Howard’s attorney, who is based in Chapel Hill. “And this decision is completely opposed to that view.”
The council members—owing to ongoing litigation—referred the INDY’s questions to Durham city attorney Kimberly Rehberg, who said the city council’s decision was made following a series of closed-door sessions soon after the federal jury’s verdict to award between December 2021 and February of this year.
Rehberg stated via a series of emails to the INDY that the city council’s decision not to pay Howard the $6 million jury award hinged on a single paragraph approved by the city council four decades ago.
The city’s two-and-a-half-page “Resolution Establishing Uniform Standards under Which Claims or Civil Judgements Sought or Entered against City Officers and Employees May Be Paid” was approved by city council members on September 8, 1981.
Section 5 of Resolution #3115 states that “whereas, it is in the public interest that claims made or judgments entered against officers or employees of the City be satisfied by the City, if the facts and circumstances of the claim or suit in which the judgment is entered show that the officer or employee was engaged in the good faith performance of his duties on behalf of the City when the act or omission giving rise to the claim or suit occurred.”
A jury of Dowdy’s peers “determined that Mr. Dowdy engaged in fabrication of evidence and a bad-faith failure to investigate,” Rehberg explained.
Rehberg says paying Howard after the city council determined Dowdy acted in bad faith is prohibited by state law.
“Once the jury made those factual findings, the city’s hands were tied.”
Bannon says he thinks the council members are “using the jury verdict as an excuse to cut and run” and that, “somehow, the jury verdict prohibits [the city council] from moving forward, and that’s simply not true. You didn’t need a resolution to defend Darrell Dowdy for five years.”
Howard wonders why the city of Durham won’t acknowledge that Dowdy’s corrupt investigation was under the direction of higher-ups in the police department.
“He took orders,” Howard says. “He did what they said. So why can’t they pay? He did this because the police department told him to. When Dowdy arrested me, I heard his superior officer tell him two times that he had done a good job.”
Barry Scheck, cofounder of the nation’s original Innocence Project in Yeshiva University’s Cardozo law school, became a member of Howard’s defense team when Howard contacted the Innocence Project nearly 20 years ago. Scheck told the INDY that the city council’s decision to not pay Howard after the federal jury’s verdict was “ridiculous.”
“What’s particularly upsetting is the City of Durham took the position to pay out $4 million for Darrell Dowdy’s defense, and now they won’t pay [Howard].”
“I wish I knew,” Scheck answered when asked why he thought the city declined to pay his client the jury award. “Right-thinking people have condemned it. It’s very cruel and very upsetting to Darryl. An innocent man wrongly convicted makes me think about the other Darryl,” Scheck adds, referring to Darryl Hunt, who was 19 in 1984 when he was wrongly convicted and served 19 years behind bars before he was released in 2005. Hunt took his own life in 2016. He was 51.
“I pray everyday Darryl stays sane,” Scheck says. “I don’t know how these people can be so cavalier and cruel. It’s perverse.”
Though city officials have taken a lot of heat for paying $4 million to defend Dowdy, Rehberg, the city attorney, said the $4 million in legal fees were not solely for Dowdy’s defense. She says $1.5 million was spent in legal fees defending the City of Durham. The remaining $2.5 million paid for the defense of Dowdy along with that of three other police officers—Scott Pennica, E.E. Sarvis, and Michele Soucie—and retired fire marshal Milton Smith.
Rehberg says prior to the jury verdict, the City of Durham “did engage in good-faith efforts to settle the case on behalf of all the named defendants in three separate mediation settlement conferences” and that the city’s offers “were remarkably close to what the jury ultimately awarded to Mr. Howard at the close of the trial.”
Bannon scoffs at the city attorney’s assertion and says the city offered Howard $4.5 million, less than the jury’s award and not accounting for accrued interest and legal fees.
“First of all, there were only two mediations, and each time, the settlement offer wasn’t anything close, let alone ‘remarkably close,’ to the jury award,” he says.
There are other troubling, unresolved issues about the case: Doris and Nishonda Washington’s killer(s) remains at large. Court documents suggest a man who was a juvenile at the time may have significant information about who was responsible for the mother’s and child’s deaths. The man’s DNA was found in Doris Washington. But he remains free.
“He pleaded the fifth in front of the judge,” Howard says. “[Judge Hudson] asked the district attorney if they were going to let the man walk out of the courtroom. He’s still walking around free.”
“The Durham Police Department is not interested in investigating, because someone was wrongfully convicted,” Bannon says. “That would admit they got it wrong.”
Owing to the city’s resolution of not indemnifying city employees who act in bad faith, Dowdy, described in a News and Observer story in April as a 30-year police veteran who made nearly $76,000 annually when he retired in 2007, stands to lose everything he owns to pay Howard $6 million.
Citing financial hardship, on March 4, Dowdy’s attorneys had filed a motion to stay the proceedings to enforce the jury’s verdict because the Durham council should have complied. The motion also indicates Dowdy may file a lawsuit against the city.
Bannon says Dowdy’s financial situation is not of concern to his client’s interest.
“The victim here in no shape or form is Darrell Dowdy,” Bannon says. “We’ll take his house, his car, and all of his money. But the victim here is Darryl Howard.”
Meanwhile, Howard spends his days working at a nonprofit he started in 2018, The Darryl Howard Foundation, and taking care of his two-year-old son, Kai.
“I’m never giving up,” he says. “I don’t have a giving-up bone in my body.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.