Derrick Allen was wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a child and spent nearly 13 years in prison for the horrific crimes. And while it has been seven years since Allen was last behind bars, he’s still imprisoned by his past.

Although Allen’s criminal record was expunged, he says he hasn’t been able to find a job, nor can he find a place to live. He says local housing authority records indicated he was a sex offender. Most nights, he says, he sleeps in his car. 

“I haven’t had an apartment since I was released in 2016,” Allen says.

Allen says he thinks his only recourse is a pardon of innocence from the governor.

Allen first filed for a pardon in 2016 with former governor Pat McCrory’s office. He then renewed the petition in 2017, after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected. He says he’s owed in excess of $600,000 for the nearly 13 years in prison and another $750,000 from the governor’s office. 

“I need the money to relocate and move far away,” he says. The thought of continuing to live in Durham, indeed even the state, Allen says, is unbearable.

The governor’s spokesperson Sam Chan would not comment on Allen’s petition. Chan told the INDY that Cooper, the Office of Executive Clemency, and the Office of General Counsel “carefully review all applications for clemency.”

Chan added that Cooper has granted nine pardons of innocence while in office. 

But in July 2020, a News & Observer editorial penned by a trio of Duke University law professors—Jamie Lau, Theresa Newman, and James E. Coleman Jr.—criticized Cooper, arguing that he was on track “to become the first North Carolina governor in more than 40 years to complete a term without granting clemency to a single person, which includes sentence commutations and pardons of forgiveness or innocence.”

The concerns of the three faculty members with the Duke Law Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility mirrored Allen’s daily struggle to survive, sometimes from one moment to the next. 

“These North Carolinians spent time in prison before a court overturned their convictions,” the law professors wrote. “Now they need a gubernatorial pardon to achieve full freedom. Without that, their arrests and years in prison remain barriers to finding employment and housing.”

Derrick Allen. Credit: Brett Villena

 The faculty members also took aim at what they described as the governor’s lack of transparency with the process, stating that his “office recently stopped releasing updated information on who and how many are seeking clemency.”

That was nearly three years ago. A cursory online check of the governor’s clemency office at the state Department of Public Safety website indicates the “page is currently under construction,” and visitors are asked to “please check back later for updates.”

On December 17, 2020, months after the law school faculty members’ editorial appeared in the N&O, Cooper’s office announced that the governor had granted five pardons of innocence: to Teddy Isbell, Damian Mills, Kenneth Kagonyera, Larry Williams Jr., and Ronnie Long.

The next year, Cooper announced pardons of innocence to Dontae Sharpe, Howard Dudley, and Darrell Howard. 

Today Allen is bitter. The stocky, bearded man is wary of strangers. For him, a pardon from the governor is paramount.

He has laminated the news stories about his case and has hundreds of documents in folders and envelopes or bound together with heavy black and silver metal clamps. His favorite phrase when talking about the law is “not guilty.” 

In early 1998, Allen was attending night classes at Hillside High School when his judicial nightmare began to take shape. He says he had been dating Diane Jones for a few months. On February 9, Allen was watching his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter, Adesha Jones, when she died from shaken baby syndrome. Allen called 911 and paramedics who arrived found the child dead with blood on the side of her clothing. 

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the paramedics also reported that what appeared to be blood on the inside leg of her pants. Allen reportedly told the emergency workers that Adesha had complained of leg pain and became unresponsive when he took her out of the bathtub. Allen was arrested hours after Adesha’s death.

The paramedics took Adesha to the hospital, but medical providers were unable to revive her, and an attending physician who examined the child reported there was a “fresh noticeable scar” in her vagina, “with some blood found inside the vagina and on the clothes [Adesha] wore to the hospital,” Ken Otterbourg wrote in the National Registry account of the case. 

Allen told the police he did not assault the child. Still he was arrested the same day on one count each of first-degree murder, first-degree sexual offense, and felony child abuse. 

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Allen says he couldn’t believe he was in jail.

“I was a little discombobulated,” he adds. “I was there for, like, 16 months. It was horrible, man. They treated me like I was a child molester, and I wasn’t. They treated me worse in prison.”

Allen doesn’t like to talk about what happened.

“I was targeted because I called the police,” he says. “I didn’t do anything to anyone. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Allen says police first took him to a hospital where his hands were swabbed for DNA and he submitted to a rape test. 

“It all came back negative,” he says.

But his court-appointed attorneys, including the county’s former chief public defender Robert Brown, told him that unless he accepted a plea deal, he would face the death penalty and die in the electric chair.

Otterbourg wrote that Allen was not the only person in the home with Adesha on the day she died. Diane Jones’s cousin Kia Ward had slept over the night before and had helped care for Adesha the day she died.

Ward told police that she noticed Adesha was “shaking—almost like she was having a seizure,” and when she asked Allen what was wrong with the child, he said he had been giving her a piggyback ride and she had fallen off. Ward also told police that she saw Allen changing the child’s underwear and asked him if he noticed the child was limping.

On February 29, Special Agent Mike Wilson with the NC State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) administered a lie detector test to Ward and determined that she was “not deceptive” in her responses to him and Durham police detective Dwight Gilliam. But Gilliam asked additional questions, and Ward told the detective that she had had sex with Allen two summers before, and they had since become “kind of like enemies,” Otterbourg wrote.

On March 2, 1998, a Durham grand jury indicted Allen on charges of first-degree murder and felony child abuse.

In 1999, Allen entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder and first-degree sexual offense to presiding superior court judge Leon Stanback. With the Alford plea, Allen did not admit actual guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence for a jury to find him guilty of the charges. Stanback sentenced Allen to 43 to 54 years in prison, but the 19-year-old escaped a death sentence.  

Soon after going to prison, Allen began to fight his conviction. In 2004, Michael Dilworth, a jailhouse attorney who is now deceased, filed an appeal on Allen’s behalf that argued that his court-appointed attorneys failed to adequately represent him and that his sentence was overly severe. 

In 2009, Allen’s appeal was granted by the NC Court of Appeals in March 2009 and allowed for a retrial of his case.

“[Dilworth] told me to get my Constitution down pat because when I got out [of prison], no one would touch my case. So I want to become an attorney, or a paralegal,” Allen says.

While awaiting retrial, Allen’s new attorney Lisa A. Williams discovered that prosecutors had withheld important information, including the child’s medical records and lab tests conducted by the SBI that countered claims of blood in the child’s underwear.

Meanwhile, Durham superior court judge Orlando Hudson vacated Allen’s sentence in 2010. But the Durham District Attorney’s Office appealed Hudson’s decision. The NC Court of Appeals overturned Hudson’s decision and remanded the case back to Durham’s superior court, where Allen would face another trial. He was released from prison on April 14, 2009, and held in custody at the Durham County jail before he was released on an unsecured bond on September 9, 2010.

While Allen awaited a potential retrial, the N&O chronicled his case in its series “Agents’ Secrets.” The paper reported that SBI agents in over 200 cases had “cut corners, bullied the vulnerable, and twisted reports and court testimony when the truth threatened to undermine their cases.” Reporters J. Andrew Curliss and Joe Neff wrote that Hudson vacated Allen’s 44-year sentence due to “widespread violations” of his rights.

Hudson laid much of the blame on Freda Black, the county’s district attorney who prosecuted the case, and Jennifer Elwell, an SBI analyst.

Hudson stated that Elwell had not adequately disclosed written reports that a positive test indicated blood in the underwear the child was wearing when she died. 

In August 2010, one month before Allen was released from prison, Cooper, then the state’s attorney general, commissioned an independent review of the SBI crime lab and “found that the lab’s analysts had routinely filed misleading reports that failed to adequately disclose negative results, often burying those contradictory findings in cryptically written lab notes,” Otterbourg wrote. 

Otterbourg added that “the independent review found 230 cases, including Allen’s, where analysts didn’t adequately disclose the results of lab work.”

“I was targeted because I called the police. I didn’t do anything to anyone. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Hudson stated that Black had misled the court about the SBI lab test and withheld other evidence that would have been favorable to Allen, including statements from key witnesses, and the lie detector tests of those witnesses.

The prosecution’s case further blew all to hell when Hudson said assistant district attorney Tracey Cline, who worked alongside Black, was also found culpable in the withholding of evidence.

Black attracted national attention in 2003 as the prosecutor who convicted Michael Peterson in one of the biggest trials in the state’s history. She died in 2018 of end-stage liver disease aggravated by chronic alcoholism. She denied any wrongdoing in the Allen case.

Cline, on the other hand, would be removed as the county’s district attorney in March 2012, after a judge found she “made statements about Hudson with malice and reckless disregard for the truth.” Cline had filed court documents seeking to have Hudson removed from several cases, the N&O reported.

In June 2015 the NC State Bar suspended Cline’s law license for five years but also ruled the suspension would be active for two years and she could reapply to practice law after three years. Cline’s license was reinstated in 2018. Cline did not respond to the INDY’s requests for comment.

In 2016, prosecutors dismissed all of the charges against Allen.

In 2019, Allen, again representing himself, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of North Carolina against Black, Elwell, the SBI, and others involved in his prosecution. On October 6, 2021, federal judge Thomas Schroeder “dismissed most of the complaint, except for claims against Elwell,” Otterbourg reported.

On December 5, federal court records show that Schroeder dismissed Allen’s claim that Elwell fabricated evidence against him. Allen has continued the lawsuit by filing it with the federal court of claims and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“They think I got off because I’m smart, like I got away with something,” Allen says. “There’s still no justice, and unless the governor steps in, I’m not going to get a fair shake.”

Allen enrolled at Durham Tech but was permanently suspended from the campus following an altercation with the police after another local news outlet aired his story.

He says that, from the time he was a 19-year-old going to night school to earn his diploma, Durham and the state of North Carolina has heaped injustice after injustice on his shoulders.

Allen says he doesn’t want a relationship with his 10-year-old son until he’s pardoned and relieved of accusations that he raped and killed a child.

“I don’t want to saddle him with that,” Allen says.

Allen supports himself by working part-time, Sunday through Thursday. He picks up trash and transports it to a dumpster. He earns $17 an hour and supplements his income by selling body oils and soaps out of his car. The $600 he earns each month wouldn’t even begin to cover the cost of an apartment, utilities, and food.

“No,” he says. “That’s not enough.”

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