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Darryl Howard

Other Durham County Cases
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Shortly after midnight on November 27, 1991, firefighters who were called to extinguish a blaze in an apartment at the Few Gardens public housing project in Durham, North Carolina, discovered the nude bodies of 29-year-old Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda.

An autopsy revealed that Nishonda had died of ligature strangulation and Doris, who also had ligature marks on her neck, died of blunt force trauma. Both appeared to have been sexually assaulted.

Shortly after the murders, police received reports that 29-year-old Darryl Howard, a friend of Doris Washington who frequented the same housing complex, had been seen in the vicinity of Doris’s apartment. Washington and Howard had known each other for more than five years and he often gave Doris rides when she needed transportation or needed help finding Nishonda, who frequently ran away from home because of her mother’s drug dealing. Evidence would later show that just days before the murders, Nishonda sought help from social workers, saying she feared for her life if she continued to live at home because her mother’s drug deals were going sour. Tragically, Nishonda’s plea was ignored.

In June 1992, police questioned Howard, but about a different investigation. At the time, Howard was in Duke hospital after he was shot five times in the back by a member of the New York Boys drug gang, which was responsible for much of the drug trade in Few Gardens. Police suspected the gang member who shot Howard was responsible for two other murders, but not the murders of Doris and Nishonda.

Even so, Howard told the detective that he believed the New York Boys killed Doris and Nishonda. Howard told the detective that on November 26—shortly before the bodies were discovered—he was in the apartment of a friend, Sharon Bass, in the same housing complex as Doris Washington’s apartment when a New York Boys gang member came by to purchase drugs. Howard said the gang member traded a VCR, a radio, and a jacket for drugs, which were similar to items that police believed had been taken from Washington’s apartment after the murders. However, the detective did not follow up on Howard’s information.

In October 1992, police arrested Angela Oliver on a charge of prostitution and she gave a statement that implicated Howard in the murders, though it was not corroborated by any other witness. The statement was recorded, in part. The statement took 46 minutes to make, but the police stopped and started the recorder so often that the actual recording lasted only about 10 minutes.

In the recording, Oliver said that on November 26, she and Howard went to Doris’s apartment to pick up money or drugs. At that time, Oliver said on the tape, Howard threatened to kill Doris if she didn’t have his money or drugs when he came back. She also said that late in the evening, she and Howard returned to the apartment with Howard’s brother, Harvey, and that Howard drew a gun and hit Doris in the face with it. Howard took Doris into the apartment and, Oliver said, she heard Doris screaming.

When the screaming ended, Howard called Harvey into the apartment and said he had to “burn them up.” Oliver said she went to the car and later the three of them drove to a drug house to get high.

On November 12, 1992, Howard was charged with two counts of capital murder and arson and Harvey was charged with arson.

Prior to trial, DNA testing on sperm that was found in the rape kit taken from Nishonda developed a DNA profile, but it was not Howard. Analysts said no sperm was found in the rape kit from Doris, so no DNA test was performed.

In March 1995, Howard went to trial in Durham County Superior Court. The first-degree murder charges against him were reduced to second-degree murder.

Howard’s case was prosecuted by Durham County assistant district attorney Michael Nifong, who argued that there was no sexual assault component to the crime, even though Doris suffered a ½ inch laceration in her vagina and a medical examiner testified that the injury was consistent with an object being forcibly inserted. Nifong argued that Nishonda had consensual sex with a boyfriend prior to the murders—although there was no evidence that it happened or even who the boyfriend might have been.

Several prosecution witnesses testified to seeing Howard near Doris’s apartment in the hours prior to the murders, although their accounts were contradictory and inconsistent.

Roneka Jackson, a friend of Doris’s and Few Gardens resident, said that on the afternoon of November 26, she saw Howard standing outside Doris’s apartment arguing with Doris, who was leaning out of her window. Jackson said Howard was arguing about his girlfriend and that he threatened to kill Doris and Nishonda. Jackson, who was in prison for violating her probation at the time of her testimony, later received $10,000 from a state compensation program in exchange for her testimony.

Dwight Moss, a convicted felon, testified that he was across the street from Doris’s apartment that same afternoon and that he heard Howard tell Doris that “you messed up the money” and “you messed up the drugs” before yelling, “I’ll kill you” and walking away. He also testified that he later saw Howard come out from the back of Doris’s apartment carrying a television.

Rhonda Davis testified that she was with Doris on November 26 from 10:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., less than three hours before Doris and Nishonda were found murdered. Davis said she did not see Howard speak to Doris or come by the apartment at all that day.

When Angela Oliver refused to come to court, she was arrested and brought to the trial. She recanted her statement on the witness stand, saying that the lead detective had threatened to charge her as an accessory to murder if she did not testify against Howard. “You can’t force me to come and tell something I didn’t see,” she said. “So, I am on the stand to make (the detective) feel good, so he ain’t going to charge me with it.”

Oliver testified that the reason the police kept stopping and starting the recorder was because she “wasn’t talking right or something.”

Oliver told the jury that she knew nothing about the murders and that when the fire broke out, she was “probably across town.”

As a result, the trial judge declared Oliver a hostile witness and allowed the prosecution to play the tape recording of her statement for the jury.

The detective who questioned Oliver testified and conceded that he had threatened to charge Oliver with murder if she did not cooperate. The detective also admitted that while he was questioning Howard’s girlfriend, Natasha Mayo, he showed her a fake warrant for murder and arson with Mayo’s name on it in an attempt to persuade her to implicate Howard (which she never did).

The defense contended that Doris and Nishonda were sexually assaulted, that the sexual assaults went “hand in hand” with the murders and therefore Howard was innocent because the pre-trial DNA testing excluded him. The defense also noted that the prosecution initially believed the sexual assaults were part of the crime, but changed its theory of the crime after Howard was excluded as the rapist by DNA testing.

Howard acknowledged that he was near Doris’ apartment on the day of the crimes, but maintained his innocence.

Mayo testified that she and Howard were at a friend’s apartment in the Few Gardens housing complex on the evening of the crimes. She said that around midnight she and Howard went out to get drugs for the friend and saw smoke coming from Doris’s apartment and then returned to their friend’s apartment.

The lead detective testified at trial that the murders were never investigated as involving sexual assaults. In his closing argument, Nifong told the jury that the case “was never investigated as a sexual assault and it was never suspected to be a sexual assault.”

On March 31, 1995, the jury convicted Howard of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of arson. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. The prosecution then dismissed the arson charge against Harvey.

In 2009, Howard, represented by the Innocence Project and James Cooney III of Charlotte, North Carolina, sought DNA testing on the rape kits and in 2010, after the prosecution consented, a judge ordered the tests. By that time, Dwight Moss had recanted his testimony implicating Howard, saying that he had been coerced by the lead detective.

The testing of Doris’s rape kit revealed sperm for the first time and the testing produced a male DNA profile that was not Howard’s. The DNA profile was entered into the FBI’s DNA database and it was matched to Jermeck Jones, a career criminal with more than 35 convictions. DNA testing on Nishonda’s rape kit again excluded Howard and identified a second male DNA profile that did not come from Jones.

Despite the identification of Jones, then-Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline declined to conduct any further investigation.

After moving for post-conviction DNA testing, Howard’s attorneys discovered undisclosed documents in the prosecution files that revealed that a few days after the murders, Durham police received a tip from an informant that the two victims were killed because Doris owed $8,000 to drug dealers from New York or Philadelphia. The informant said that residents of the housing complex had been offered $2,000 a week for use of their apartments to sell narcotics and that Doris had accepted. The tipster said that when the perpetrators came for the money they raped Doris before strangling her. The tipster said that Doris was murdered because the drug dealers learned that drugs were missing and Doris did not repay the $8,000 that was owed; her daughter was killed because she walked in during the crime. The informant also said that more than one perpetrator was involved.

In the margin of the memo was a handwritten note written by a captain in the Durham Police Department to the lead detective, stating, “There may be something to this. I don’t remember any public info on the rape.”

That tip was not only ignored, but also concealed by police and prosecutor Nifong for nearly two decades. (Nifong was disbarred in 2007 for failing to disclose evidence favorable to the defendants in an unrelated wrongful accusation of rape against several members of the Duke University lacrosse team.) The tip would have supported the defense theory that the crimes were committed by more than one perpetrator and by members of the New York Boys drug gang.

In May 2014, Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. vacated Howard’s convictions without a hearing and ordered a new trial based on the DNA test results, Nifong’s hiding favorable evidence from the defense, and the presentation of false and misleading evidence and arguments at the trial by Nifong and the detective.

The prosecution appealed and in April 2016, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina set aside the decision and ordered Judge Hudson to conduct a hearing on the motion for a new trial.

On August 31, 2016, after a hearing a three-day hearing, Judge Hudson again vacated Howard’s convictions and ordered a new trial. Howard was released on bond after more than 23 years in custody.

On September 2, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the murder and arson charges. No charges were filed against Jones as of September 2016.

Howard fled a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages in May 2017.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/6/2016
Last Updated: 6/29/2017
State:North Carolina
County:Durham
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1991
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:80 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes