Judge Tosses N.C. Murder Conviction After 21 Years

     DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Wednesday threw out the double-murder conviction of a man who has spent 21 years in prison and said he was prepared to order his immediate and unrestricted release from prison.
     Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson said DNA evidence unavailable at the time of Darryl Howard’s 1995 murder trial would have created a reasonable doubt for jurors who convicted him. Howard was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
     Hudson said prosecutors would have to retry Howard, who was convicted based heavily on the testimony of witnesses at the Durham public housing project where the 1991 slayings occurred, or drop the case. There was no physical evidence tying Howard to the strangling and sexual assault of 29-year-old Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda.
     “I can’t see any reason he can’t be released today,” Hudson said.
     Prosecutors said they would appeal to block that. The same judge was prepared to order Howard’s release two years ago, but prosecutors appealed and a state appeals court ruled Hudson failed to hear enough evidence before making a decision.
     Because prosecutors planned to block Hudson’s ruling on the DNA evidence, the judge was expected to hear testimony later Wednesday on whether misconduct by police and prosecutors helped lead to Howard’s conviction.
     That means the prosecutor discredited and disbarred for his handling of the Duke University lacrosse case a decade ago, Mike Nifong, could be grilled about his conduct in the Howard trial.
     In the Duke case, three athletes were accused of raping a stripper hired to entertain a team party. State investigators later determined Nifong lied and buried evidence proving the lacrosse players were innocent.
     The judge said in his 2014 ruling that Nifong failed to share with defense attorneys a police memo and other evidence that pointed to suspects other than Howard. A Durham police detective testified at Howard’s trial that investigators never considered that the sexual assaults were linked to the killers. Nifong repeated that claim despite a police memo in the prosecution’s files that contradicted him.
     DNA evidence presented at the 1991 trial showed Howard was not responsible for sexually assaulting Nishonda Washington before her murder. Whoever did assault Nishonda hasn’t been identified.
     But DNA tests unavailable at the time of Howard’s original trial identified the man who had sex with Doris Washington shortly before her 1991 death as Jermeck Jones, who dated Nishonda before her death. He was identified from DNA samples stored in a federal database, which was collected after Jones was sentenced to prison in Tennessee.
     Jones served nearly four years in Tennessee prisons before his release in late 2007 for crimes including possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, failure to appear in court, drug possession and reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon.
     Jones on Tuesday refused to answer questions from Howard’s attorneys, citing his constitutional right against incriminating himself.
     
     Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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