Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Howard Dudley

Other North Carolina Child Sex Abuse Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Howard_Dudley.jpg
On October 13, 1991, in Kinston, North Carolina, nine-year-old Amy Moore told her babysitter that her father, 34-year-old Howard Dudley, was “nasty.” After the babysitter demanded an explanation with questions that became increasingly suggestive, Amy finally said that Dudley had “humped her” and “had S-E-X” with her.

Later the same day, the babysitter informed Amy’s mother that Amy said she had been abused by her father more than once, including a rape in Dudley’s bed the previous month.

Kinston police and the Lenoir County Department of Social Services were both notified. On December 5, 1991, following an investigation, a petition alleging abuse and neglect was filed in Lenoir County Juvenile Court. At a hearing two weeks later, Dudley was ordered to have no contact with Amy or her mother. By that time, social services workers had decided—despite the lack of evidence supporting Amy’s allegations—that “credence must be given to the child’s story.” Ultimately, despite their concluding that the allegations were substantiated, the social service workers agreed to a plan that not only allowed Dudley supervised visitation with Amy, but contemplated unsupervised visitation after he completed “counseling” for an unspecified period of time.

But then, in February 1992, Dudley was indicted by a Lenoir County grand jury on charges of first-degree sexual offense and taking indecent liberties with a minor.

Dudley’s prosecution occurred near the height of a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hundreds of defendants were arrested based on widely publicized allegations of sexual abuse of children—many of them fantastical—that were later proven false. Evidence in Amy’s case would later show that shortly before she accused her father of raping her, Amy had watched comedienne and actress Roseanne Barr say on television that she had been a victim of incest—an accusation that was strongly disputed by Barr’s parents and siblings.

Equally important, in April 1992, just as Dudley was going to trial in Lenoir County Superior Court, the trial of Robert Kelly, owner of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in nearby Edenton, North Carolina, was concluding. The jury convicted Kelly of 99 counts of sexually abusing numerous children at the center and sentenced him to 12 life prison terms.

The allegations in the Little Rascals case, which dominated local television news in the area for more than a year, were similar to those made in sex abuse hysteria cases in several other states: children claimed they were placed in microwave ovens, hung upside down, forced to have sex with each other and forced to watch adults defecate, urinate and have sex. There were claims about satanic rituals and trips on pirate boats and hot air balloons and newborn children being tossed to sharks in the ocean. These bizarre claims would later be exposed as the products of highly aggressive (and sometimes abusive) interviews of young children by child welfare investigators. Kelly was among more than 50 people who were convicted and later exonerated in these child sex hysteria cases.

Against that backdrop—the Little Rascals trial was the longest and most expensive in North Carolina history—Kinston police and Lenoir County Social Services investigators were confronted with Amy’s accusations.

Dudley had no criminal record. He and Diane Moore, Amy’s mother, never married. By the time Amy made the allegations, Dudley had given up alcohol, become a Christian, was married to another woman and had two other children. His relationship with Diane Moore remained tempestuous.

Dudley’s trial lawyer devoted less than 30 hours to the case, including the time he spent at the two-day trial and hours spent on the Juvenile Court abuse petition. The lawyer, who had been practicing law for just a year, failed to file any pretrial motions, did not conduct any investigation into Amy’s school or medical records, and did not consult a medical expert.

The prosecution presented the testimony from Amy herself; her mother, Diane Moore; the babysitter; and the lead police investigator. Amy was frequently confused on the witness stand and the judge, without objection from the defense, allowed the prosecutor to continually prompt her and correct her testimony. The babysitter and Amy’s mother provided inconsistent accounts as well.

In an effort to disprove the abuse, Dudley’s lawyer called a physician who had examined Amy at the request of the prosecution. The physician testified—as he had previously reported—that he found no physical evidence of abuse, but he also said it was “possible” that the abuse had occurred and that “the most common exam finding on a child that has been sexually abused is a normal exam.”

Dudley testified and denied the charges. He said he believed Amy had concocted the claims because he had disciplined her for poor behavior. Dudley’s wife testified that they lived in a small mobile home with their newborn and toddler and she never heard any screaming or unusual noises during Amy’s visits even though she was up with the newborn almost every hour.

On April 24, 1992, after a two-day trial, Dudley was convicted of first-degree sexual offense and taking indecent liberties with a minor. He was sentenced to concurrent sentences of natural life in prison and three years.

Almost immediately after the trial, Amy recanted to a different babysitter, saying that her testimony had been false. The babysitter reported the recantation to Amy’s mother, who became so angry that Amy promptly withdrew her recantation.

Nevertheless, that initial recantation became the focus of three separate post-conviction motions filed on Dudley’s behalf—all of which were unsuccessful—primarily because little additional investigation was ever done beyond the initial recantation itself.

In 2005, The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, published a series of articles about the case titled “Caught in a Lie” that focused on Dudley’s life in prison and recounted evidence supporting Dudley’s innocence that was never disclosed to Dudley’s defense lawyer.

The newly disclosed evidence included a report prepared by the guardian ad litem who investigated Amy’s claims during the Juvenile Court proceedings prior to Dudley’s trial. The guardian ad litem’s report concluded that Amy’s assertions were false.

Not long after, the Duke University Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic began investigating the case. The Duke clinic uncovered evidence that Amy had been subjected to the sort of improper questioning by police and social workers that was common in child sex abuse hysteria cases and many other contemporaneous child sex abuse investigations, but has since been condemned for generating false claims of sexual abuse.

A post-conviction petition was filed in 2013 by clinic attorneys Theresa Newman and Jamie Lau. The petition noted that prior to trial, Amy had “retold the abuse allegations to eight different people on nine separate occasions” and the retelling revealed a “high degree of inconsistency and implausibility.”

Moreover, a series of medical and psychological examinations of Amy revealed that she suffered from a host of problems that would have undermined her ability to withstand suggestive questioning, including a serious intellectual deficit.

At a hearing was on the motion in March 2016, Dudley testified that he refused a pre-trial offer to plead guilty and avoid prison altogether because he would not admit to a crime he did not commit.

Expert witnesses testified on Dudley’s behalf that based on their examinations of Amy, she suffered from depression, psychotic episodes and anxiety disorder. Her IQ was measured at 68, lower than 99 percent of the population, indicating serious cognitive deficits and that made her highly suggestible.

Amy herself testified that her accusations were false and that her guilt over sending her father to prison had been an enormous burden for a quarter of a century.

Lau and Newman showed that in addition to the guardian ad litem’s report, reports by the Lenoir County Social Services Department were rife with evidence that was favorable to Dudley, but were never disclosed to his defense lawyer.

Those records proved that Amy’s claims were physically impossible and were embellished over time as she was interviewed and re-interviewed. For example, she told the social services investigators that she was raped while wearing her pajamas and underwear. She said she bled—then said there was no blood. At one point, she said she was stabbed in the back with a knife and that in response to her screams, a neighbor halted the attack. Needless to say, there was no evidence that such an attack occurred.

On March 2, 2016, Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons vacated Dudley’s convictions and ordered him released from prison.

The judge found that Amy’s recantation was “credible, and was a clear, believable statement.”

The judge found that Dudley’s attorney had spent minimal time in pre-trial preparation and on the trial itself, and as a result provided an inadequate legal defense. The defense lawyer filed no pretrial motions, sought no independent medical expert, failed to interview relatives of Dudley who would have supported his testimony, and failed to seek any of Amy’s educational or medical records.

The judge ruled that the prosecution failed to disclose to Dudley’s lawyer that the guardian ad litem had concluded that Amy’s claims were false. In addition, the prosecution had failed to disclose the social services reports to the defense. The failures constituted “an egregious violation,” the judge declared.

On May 2, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 5/18/2016
State:North Carolina
County:Lenoir
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse
Reported Crime Date:1991
Convicted:1992
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:34
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No