Officials with a statewide agency that advocates for criminal justice reform this week called on Durham city council members to pay Darryl Howard the $6 million a federal grand jury awarded to him after he was wrongly convicted and spent more than two decades in prison for two murders he did not commit.
“This injustice flies in the face of commitments Durham’s city council has made to police accountability and civil rights, reflects bad public policy, and is morally wrong,” Emancipate North Carolina officials stated in a Monday afternoon press release.
Howard and the director of Emancipate NC Policy & Program, Kerwin Pittman, along with Emancipate NC attorney Dawn Blagrove, were on the agenda for public comment during Monday’s regularly scheduled city council meeting with the intention of “demanding [council members] fulfill [their] obligation to pay the judgment to Mr. Howard,” according to an Emancipate NC press release made public on Monday afternoon.
However, a city official during the Monday night meeting informed mayor Elaine O’Neal that she had spoken with Blagrove and referred her to the public comment section of Thursday’s city council work session.
“Durham should be ashamed of itself,” Blagrove, who is executive director of Emancipate NC, stated in the release. “A city so often touted for its progressivism, led by Black people, should understand the deep debt it owes to a Black man robbed of his freedom by a corrupt and racist system. Pay for the harm of your racist law enforcement and make your deeds match your words.
But city officials say their hands are tied: they are prohibited from granting Howard the jury award owing to an arcane, decades-old city ordinance.
As the INDY previously reported, a jury concluded late last year, 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 Doris Washington and her 13-year-old Nishonda Washington in 1991.
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.
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.
But Emancipate NC officials in their release, 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.”
Pittman, the agency’s director, asked members of the public and city council members to pause and place themselves in Howard’s shoes.
You have been kidnapped from your loved ones and unjustly incarcerated in a cage. Made to endure over 20 years of hard time for a crime you knew you didn’t commit,” Pittman said in the press statement. Finally, released, only to be tormented yet again by unnecessary and unwarranted state-sanctioned violence.”
The city council work session on Thursday begins at 1 p.m.
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