On the grounds of an affordable housing complex in Kinston, Howard Dudley finds peace sitting on a swing early in the morning, watching the sunrise.
Gone are the late-night hollers of convicts who kept him awake, the commands of guards, and the shutter of prison bars.
Sometimes he calls his sister and tells her how good the air feels.
“Things we take for granted,” his sister, Linda Hawkins, says.
After nearly 24 years in prison, Dudley, now 64, was exonerated and released in 2016 for a crime he didn’t commit.
The senior living facility is a place for Dudley to rest his head because it’s all he can afford. His family hopes it’s temporary.
After waiting more than two decades to win his freedom, he’s now waiting for justice.
Rectifying the delay
Thirty-six states award compensation to those wrongfully imprisoned, generally on a sliding scale depending on time served.
In North Carolina, an exonerated person is entitled to $50,000 for each year spent in prison, up to a maximum of $750,000.
Dudley is entitled to the full amount—but there’s a snag.
North Carolina is one of only four states that require an official pardon of innocence from the governor—little more than a stroke of a pen—before an exoneree can apply for compensation, an extra step that can delay the process for years. Maryland, one of the four states, recently passed legislation that removed the step.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, a bipartisan House bill sought to do the same. The bill would provide an alternate route for exonerees to qualify for compensation by allowing a court to determine whether the vacated conviction was erroneous, a ruling to mean that no reasonable juror would have found the person guilty. The governor could still issue a pardon to provide for compensation.
House Majority Whip Jon Hardister, a Republican from Guilford County, says he sponsored the bill in recognition of the impact that being falsely convicted can have on a person’s financial stability and the notoriously long wait exonerees face in seeking their just compensation.
He criticized both the process as well as Governor Roy Cooper’s history of issuing pardons during his tenure.
“The current process is cumbersome and it can take many years for an exonerated person to receive their due compensation from the state,” Hardister said in an email. “For whatever reason, the current Governor seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time to issue pardons for people who have been exonerated, which has placed many people and their families in a very difficult situation. This bill seeks to streamline the process so that the courts can effectuate the process of vacating the sentences of a person who is exonerated and allow that person to seek restitution without waiting for gubernatorial action.”
The bill was introduced late in the session, however—too late to meet the so-called “crossover” deadline of May 13, when legislation passed in one chamber must be sent over for the other chamber to consider.
But Hardister said the legislation isn’t necessarily dead. It’s possible it could be introduced as an amendment to another bill, he said.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat from Durham and cosponsor of the bill, agreed the current process needs reforming.
“No amount of money can buy back the lost, painful years of incarceration,” Morey said, “but legislation should be enacted that affords swift compensation to the wrongfully convicted.”
In an email to the INDY, Dory MacMillan, a spokesperson for Cooper’s office, noted the governor has issued six pardons, but ignored related questions, including whether the governor supported the bill and why Cooper waited nearly four years in office to issue his first pardons to exonorees.
Dudley’s petition, meanwhile, is “under review by the clemency office,” MacMillan said, without elaborating.
‘A black box’
Duke law professor Jamie Lau represented Dudley in his appeal as part of Duke Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which advocates on behalf of those wrongfully imprisoned.
Lau says the process of requiring a gubernatorial pardon to qualify for compensation needs reforming.
Under the current system, an exoneree can seek a pardon by applying through the Governor’s Clemency Office, which reviews petitions and provides recommendations to the governor.
But the process is opaque, Lau says. A page on the clemency office’s website designed to show pending applications, for instance, hasn’t been updated since Cooper took office.
“It’s really a black box,” he says. “Once the request is made, you don’t know anything about what’s happening or where it stands.”
That’s the case for Dudley, who was convicted in 1992 of sexually assaulting his nine-year-old daughter based solely on her account to police. She later recanted her story.
Dudley’s application for pardon went to the governor’s office shortly after his release, where it’s lingered without resolution for five years.
And Dudley’s not alone.
“I know of five people who have pending requests in front of the governor,” Lau says. “I can’t tell you if there’s more because those are just the people I personally know have made requests.”
Lau said former Governor Pat McCrory acted with “quite a bit of speed” in granting pardons, particularly in the case of LaMonte Armstrong, who was exonerated in March 2013 and by December 2013 had received a pardon that provided compensation.
“In comparison, the prior administration was much better in making these decisions and making them in a timely fashion to actually help someone coming out of a long-term incarceration who really needs some assistance and help with their immediate needs,” Lau says.
Cooper, meanwhile, went nearly his entire first term without any acts of clemency. In December, he finally granted pardons to five people including Ronnie Long, one of Lau’s clients.
Long was exonerated in August 2020 and received his pardon in December, but his case was unique.
“There was a huge push for that act to be taken in Ronnie Long’s case,” Lau says. “It shouldn’t take moving mountains to get these quick decisions.”
The four other men pardoned last December waited longer: “Those people had been exonerated for five years and had had their requests pending for years without any action and had no idea whether or not they would ever receive a pardon of innocence.”
Cooper recently pardoned Darryl Howard, but again, he had waited nearly five years before receiving the pardon that allowed for compensation.
“The fact is, these men need the money as soon as they come out,” Lau says, pointing to the case of Charles Ray Finch, who was exonerated in May 2019 after 43 years in prison.
“We pushed him out of prison in a wheelchair at 80 years old, and he’s still not received a dime from the state for those 43 years of wrongful incarceration.”
The governor, whose pardons could be held against him during a reelection bid, shouldn’t be the gatekeeper, Lau says.
“It’s too political a process to have the governor as the gatekeeper when an impartial court could trigger the compensation itself in an open hearing with a transparent review of all the evidence in the case.”
A home of his own
The two-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of the Kinston Towers is “basic … nothing flashy about it,” Hawkins, Dudley’s sister, says. “Just a place where he can lay his head until he can do better.”
And that’s his dream, she says. (On the advice of Dudley’s attorney with a police misconduct lawsuit pending, Hawkins spoke on her brother’s behalf.)
“When he went in, he was a young, vibrant man who held down a job. He had a wife. He had a relationship with his kids,” she says.
Now his children are grown, and his wife died before his release. His mother, too.
A monthly Social Security check, which covers Dudley’s rent and a little food, goes only so far, his sister says.
“He has to stretch that money the whole month.”
Dudley talks about owning a home, a yard. Something peaceful. Something he had been working for before his life was ripped away from him. But her brother still has hope, Hawkins says.
“He should be compensated for the life that he wanted before they locked him up,” she says. “He wanted to work. He wanted to retire. He wanted to raise his kids. And do things like normal people do. And they took this away from him.”
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