NC man seeks $48 million in federal lawsuit accusing detective of making up evidence

  • In US
  • 2021-12-01 14:07:26Z
  • By Raleigh News and Observer

An attorney for Darryl Howard asked a jury to award him $48 million in damages if they find that a Durham detective made up and withheld evidence in an investigation that put Howard in prison for over two decades.

"It's a huge number," Emma Freudenberger, one of Howard's attorneys, told the jury during closing arguments Tuesday.

"And you know what? It is not nearly enough."

Tuesday marked the 14th and final day of presenting evidence in the federal civil rights lawsuit accusing retired Durham Police Detective Darrell Dowdy of depriving Howard, 59, of his constitutional right to a fair trial by making up and withholding information during an investigation and 1995 trial that convicted him of killing a mother and daughter.

Dowdy, 65, who denies the accusations, worked for the Durham Police Department for 36 years before he retired in 2007.

If the jury finds Howard's rights were violated, Freudenberger asked the jury to award $2 million for each year of the 21 1/2 years Howard spent in prison after he was convicted, plus $5 million for the the impact on his life after he was released.

A psychiatrist testified that Howard suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after years of being locked up for a crime he has always said he didn't commit.

Dowdy's attorney, Nick Ellis, suggested that if the jury finds his client liable, Howard should be awarded no more than $500,0000 considering his life and behavior at the time of the killings, which included abusing and selling drugs and being shot about 10 times in five incidents, he said.

Two found dead

Dowdy's investigation started 30 years ago after firefighters found Doris Washington, 29, and her daughter Nishonda, 13, dead in a public housing apartment set ablaze after midnight on Nov. 27, 1991.

The women were naked, lying face down on a bed, strangled and beaten. Autopsies found sperm in Nishonda's anus and a tear in her mother's vagina. Washington died from a blow to the chest, and her daughter died of strangulation, according to court testimony.

Four years later, a jury convicted Howard of arson and two counts of second-degree murder. Howard argued that the Washingtons were raped and killed by a dangerous gang, and he was innocent since his DNA wasn't linked to the sperm found in the teen.

At the 1995 criminal trial, Dowdy testified he never suspected the murders involved sexual assaults since the medical examiner didn't outline that possibility in his report. He said he believed the sperm found in the teen was from consensual sex with her boyfriend.

Howard was sentenced to 80 years in prison, which was cut short after a judge vacated his convictions in 2016, citing police and prosecutorial misconduct. The District Attorney's Office decided not to re-try the case.

Howard's 2017 lawsuit initially sought damages from the city and other police and fire employees, but was narrowed to just Dowdy over time.

What Howard argued

The two-men, six-women jury spent most of Tuesday listening to closing summaries from the attorneys who described starkly different takes on the evidence in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in downtown Winston-Salem.

Howard's attorneys have argued that Washington and her daughter were raped and killed by members of the New York Boys, a violent street gang that sold drugs in the Washingtons' public housing complex Few Gardens. The city has since leveled the crime-ridden 16-acre brick complex divided up by gangs and drug dealers when the killings occurred.

Washington sold or stored drugs in her two-story apartment for the New York Boys, and she and Nishonda were raped and killed to send a brutal message after Doris owed them money, Howard's attorneys have argued.

About a year after the killings, Howard's attorneys argue, Dowdy gave details of the killing to Angela Oliver, then a drug-addicted prostitute with severe mental health illnesses, according to her testimony.

In a taped statement played for the 1995 jury, Oliver outlined how she saw Howard beat Washington, take her upstairs as she yelled her daughter was home, and heard him say he had to burn up their bodies. Oliver recanted her testimony in an August deposition, saying Dowdy fed her the information.

Paperwork indicates Oliver's statement was taken over a 45-minute period but the taped portion lasts only about 10 minutes. Howard's attorneys contend that Dowdy stopped the tape, which has gone missing along with Dowdy's notes in the case, to feed Oliver information. Dowdy has provided varying explanations at the trial, in his deposition and his court testimony, including he stopped the tape while talking to other officers, to do a pre-interview and fill in paperwork, and that he read the wrong times onto the tape.

When Howard sought DNA testing on the sperm found in Nishonda around 2003, Dowdy knew that it would be favorable to Howard and took other steps to cover up Oliver's fabricated statement, Howard's attorneys argued. Those steps included making up evidence about Nishonda having consensual sex with her boyfriend before the killing to explain the sperm found in the teen, the attorneys said.

Dowdy's interviews include one statement from a woman who said Nishonda returned home two days before the killings, but Dowdy testified that he thought she misspoke and meant the day before the killing. The timeline is key because medical experts indicate that the sperm on the teen was deposited within a 24 hour period of the autopsy.

During Dowdy's testimony this month, he said he tasked an officer he had never mentioned, including at the 1995 trial or his 2019 deposition, to look into the boyfriend but he never provided any information.

DNA testing before the criminal trial excluded Howard. In 2010, Howard sought new tests on the sexual assault evidence, which found sperm in Washington that was linked to a New York Boys gang member who was 15 at the time of the killing. New York Boys were known to use young teens to do violent crimes since they would likely face less severe sentences, according to court testimony.

Darryl Anthony Howard leaves a Durham County courthouse on Nov.
Darryl Anthony Howard leaves a Durham County courthouse on Nov.  

Howard's innocence still questioned

Howard does not have to prove his innocence because the civil trial focuses on Dowdy's actions, but his attorneys have still taken up the argument.

The sperm from two different men found in Washington proves Howard was innocent, Freudenberger said, along with the pardon of innocence that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper awarded him in April.

Chief District Judge Thomas Schroeder later advised the jury that Howard sought the pardon in 2017 based on a state law that doesn't outline specific requirements for the pardon in a process that is confidential.

In testimony, Dowdy has maintained he still believes Howard is guilty and that Oliver and others indicating he changed their statements are lying.

Howard's legal team has also said key witnesses gave more specific incriminating information after a $10,000 reward was advertised in the case. Others, in more recent testimony, said Dowdy planted the information in their statements.

Howard also contend Dowdy didn't share information with Howard about another key witness, Roneka Jackson, being a confidential informant and her ties to the New York Boys before Howard's trial. Dowdy has said he didn't know about the witness's gang ties or work for another officer until months after the trial when the witness was killed by New York Boys members.

Howard's attorneys also asked the jury to disregard the defendant's attacks on Howard's character, saying everyone deserves justice despite their life choices.

Dowdy broke the rules during his investigation because Howard didn't matter to Dowdy then or now, Freudenberger said..

"If these rules can't protect Darryl Howard, then they can't protect the rest of us," she said.

Darryl Anthony Howard (left) wipes away tears after Judge Orlando Hudson rules to vacate his murder conviction.
Darryl Anthony Howard (left) wipes away tears after Judge Orlando Hudson rules to vacate his murder conviction.  

What Dowdy said

Dowdy's attorneys argued that the case isn't about DNA or Howard being guilty or innocent.

"It's about whether he had a fair trial," Ellis said.

Howard did, Ellis said, pointing out that seven witnesses, which includes Oliver, testified at the trial and linked Howard to killing.

Many of the arguments Howard presented in the federal civil trial - the gang killing, lack of Howard's DNA, and inconsistent witness statements - were presented to the jury in 1995 but it still found Howard guilty, Ellis said.

For the civil jury to believe Howard was telling the truth, Ellis said, they would also have to believe that multiple police officers and witnesses lied.

Ellis said that is "also fair and reasonable" for the jury to consider Dowdy's and Howard's life choices.

Dowdy and Howard both grew up in public housing with single mothers, Ellis said. Dowdy chose to join the police department while Howard sold drugs and was involved in numerous shootings.

If Howard wasn't convicted, where is the evidence that he would have changed, Ellis asked the jury.

"Was there any indication that he was about to change his life?" Ellis said.

What will the jury decide?

The specific questions the jury will consider include whether Dowdy:

Fabricated evidence regarding Oliver's statement and evidence that supported Nishonda having consensual sex before the killing.

Withheld evidence regarding witness Jackson's connection to the New York Boys and role as criminal informant.

Failed to perform an adequate investigation in order to conceal previous fabrications.

If the jury decides that the evidence shows that Dowdy more likely than not committed any of those actions, then it will move to determining damages.

The jury deliberated about 45 minutes on Tuesday and will continue on Wednesday morning.

The Durham Report

Calling Bull City readers! We've launched The Durham Report, a free weekly digest of some of the top stories for and about Durham published in The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Get your newsletter delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday at 11 a.m. featuring links to stories by our local journalists. Sign up for our newsletter here. For even more Durham-focused news and conversation, join our Facebook group "The Story of my Street."


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