Darryl Howard was wrongly convicted in 1995 and spent decades in prison for two murders he did not commit.

Early Thursday afternoon, Howard implored city council members to revisit their decision to not honor a federal jury’s decision last year to pay him $6 million for the wrongful conviction.

Howard, dressed in black trousers and a red T-shirt with the word “American” emblazoned across the chest, slowly walked to the podium for public comment during the council members’ regularly scheduled work session.

“I beg y’all to reconsider, and think about me,” Howard told the council members. “I’m the victim. I’ve been a victim for 22 years.”

Prior to asking the council members to reconsider their decision, Howard explained that it was probably “impossible” to describe what he endured behind bars for over two decades after he was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for the sexual assault and brutal slayings of 29-year-old Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter Nishonda in 1991.

“My life has been erased after 22 years,” Howard said. “I have no one to turn to. No old jobs, no nothing. I’m living a blank life. I have a baby now I have to take care of. All my family has died and left me by myself, and I just think it’s wrong.”

Late last year, a federal jury in the U.S. District Court’s Middle District’s Durham Division deliberated for about at the end of a nearly month-long civil rights trial and concluded that a police detective had manufactured evidence that resulted in Howard spending more than two decades behind bars.

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 told the INDY 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?’”

The federal jury in the U.S. District Court determined 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.

Months after the jury verdict, city officials said their hands were tied: they are prohibited from granting Howard the jury award owing to an arcane, decades-old city ordinance.

City attorney Kimberly Rehberg told the INDY that 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.

Emancipate NC, a statewide agency based in Durham that works to end systemic racism and abolish the carceral system, has taken up Howard’s cause.

In a Monday press release, Emancipate NC officials said the city council’s reason for not paying Howard is “based on spurious legal grounds,” and that the city’s elected leaders “must meet their responsibility for just compensation.”

Ian Mance, Emancipate NC’s senior counsel, said the state’s general statutes do not bar Durham from paying the judgment. 

“The Council’s hands are not tied,” Mance said in the release. “They have all the authority they need to pay Mr. Howard what he is owed.” 

Moments before Howard spoke, Durham attorney Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, told the city council that a significant part of the work the agency focuses on is police accountability.

“I am here today to speak to the council about the importance of police accountability,” she said, “and the importance of honoring, and taking responsibility for the harms an unchecked police department may have caused on the citizens of Durham.”

Blagrove did not directly address the council’s decision to not pay Howard. She instead commended the council for taking “very progressive steps being taken by the city of Durham to mitigate some of the real harm that we know exists within law enforcement.”

However, she added, “it is not enough.”

Blagrove noted that owing to the racial makeup of the council, with five Black Americans and one Hispanic American, the members should understand implicitly “the real harms, and terror, and disruption in Black communities that law enforcement has created over the years, specifically in Durham, but all over.”

“I stand here today, calling on the council to honor, acknowledge, and pay for the harm that has been caused by the systemic and institutional racism that exists within the city of Durham,” Blagrove said.

Howard and Blagrove’s appearance before the council on Thursday was preceded by a press release this week that described the city’s elected members’ refusal to pay Howard an “injustice that flies in the face of commitments Durham’s city council had made to police accountability and civil rights.”

Emancipate NC officials in the release said the council’s decision reflected “bad public policy, and is morally wrong.”

Howard on Thursday told the city council that, while warehoused in prison, he “did everything in my power through the court system to win, and I did.”

“I got to the end and I got refused, which is not right.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.