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Darrill Henry

Other Orleans County, Louisiana exonerations
Around 10 a.m. on June 15, 2004, 89-year-old Durelli Watts, who lived alone at 1930 Duels Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, left a message on her grandson’s voicemail that something “serious” was happening. At 11 a.m., when her son delivered her lunch, as he did daily, nothing seemed amiss. However, an hour later, when calls to the home went unanswered, Watts’s 67-year-old daughter, Ina Gex, went to the house to check on her mother.

When she arrived about 1:30 p.m., the house was on fire. Before Gex could enter, she was confronted by a man on the front porch. The man shot her three times, then rifled through her purse, shot her once more—in the head—and fled on foot. The gunshots were fatal. The first call to 911 came at 1:53 p.m.

By the time the fire was extinguished, Watts, a longtime seamstress who was known for her work creating gowns for Mardi Gras, was dead. She had been stabbed 14 times.

Three neighbors, Cecilia Garcia, Steven Dominick and Linda Davis, told police they saw some or all of the shooting and saw the perpetrator leave. Their descriptions were consistent only in that the man was Black and wore a red shirt and blue pants.

Dominick described the gunman as 5’6” or 5’7” tall with a dark complexion, some “small braids or plaits,” and wearing a fishing hat.

On June 15, 2004, Dominick worked with a police artist to create a sketch that was used to focus public attention on the crime, although Dominick said the end result did not resemble the man he saw. The publication in the media of the sketch resulted in nearly three dozen Crime Stopper tips, but all were either eliminated or not pursued by police.

On June 17, New Orleans police detectives Winston Harbin and Claude Nixon went to the crime scene. They saw blood droplets on the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator and requested that the evidence be collected. While they were in the neighborhood, a neighbor reported that another neighbor had followed the gunman to an address on Law Street that was two blocks from the crime scene.

The detectives determined that 28-year-old Darrill Henry was living with his girlfriend at the home on Law Street and that he had just been arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor charge on the same day that the crime occurred. Police got a search warrant for Henry’s mother’s residence on Erato Street, his girlfriend’s residence on Law Street and Henry’s residence on Camp Street. Police seized all of the male clothing they could find including several pairs of shoes. A pair of tennis shoes appeared to have blood on them.

That same day, Garcia’s husband gave Detective Harbin a sketch that he had drawn based on his wife’s description of the gunman because Garcia—as did Davis—believed the original police sketch did not resemble the man she saw. Garcia said the perpetrator was 5’8” to 5’9” tall, had light skin, and was wearing dark sunglasses and a hat. She said the gunman had a thin nose and thin lips. She did not see any braids.

On June 24, 2004, Dominick viewed a photographic lineup. Although Henry was wearing a white and blue shirt when he was arrested, police inserted a year-old photograph of Henry in a red shirt. Dominick first pointed to a filler, saying it “jumps out at me.” He then pointed to Henry, and said he was a “familiar face.” But Dominick did not identify anyone in the lineup as the gunman.

On July 7, 2004, Garcia viewed a photographic lineup that included the photo of Henry in the red shirt. She manually covered the top portion of each face, saying she was attempting to replicate the hat and sunglasses worn by the gunman. She identified Henry as the gunman.

That same day, police released the photograph of Henry to the news media bearing his name and the notation: “Gex/Watts Murder Suspect.”

Henry agreed to be interviewed by police that day as well. He said that he had spent the day of the crime applying for jobs at several hotels and restaurants. Henry was not released—he was placed under arrest for the crime.

On September 2, 2004, Davis viewed a photographic lineup consisting of the same six photos that Garcia had viewed, but in a different order. Davis identified Henry as the gunman. She also noted that she had previously seen the photo of Henry in the media.

That same day, Henry was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of murder.

The case was still pending in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans and northward in Louisiana. The catastrophic storm killed nearly 1,400 people and caused upwards of $150 billion in property damage.

The hurricane’s devastation left the criminal justice system in tatters. For years, the records in Henry’s case were believed to have been lost as were records from countless other cases. But eventually the records were found. In August 2011, Henry, who was in custody, finally went to trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. The prosecution sought the death penalty.

By then, Dominick had joined Davis and Garcia in identifying Henry as the gunman. In January 2010, Dominick had been arrested on more than 130 counts of possession of child pornography. He also had been charged with five counts of rape, six counts of stalking, three counts of extortion and one count of kidnapping. Dominick had been placed in a holding cell with Henry, who was awaiting a court hearing. Dominick claimed he recognized Henry as the gunman. Ultimately, Dominick pled guilty to the charges.

Anna Duggar, a criminalist in the New Orleans police crime lab, testified that no blood spatter was found on any of the clothing that Henry was wearing when he was arrested the same day as the crime. A drop of blood on his tennis shoes, which had been seized from his mother’s home, was Henry’s blood. No fire-related substances were found on his clothes. Duggar said there was a considerable amount of blood spatter from Watts in the bedroom and the kitchen. There also was a smear pattern near Watts’s body. No fingerprints were found, Duggar said.

A wallet, containing cash, was on Watts’s bed. Nothing appeared to be missing from the house.

Garcia, Davis and Dominick identified Henry as the gunman. Dominick denied having a deal with, or expecting any benefit from, the district attorney's office for his testimony. However, the defense contended that jail phone calls between Dominick and his family showed that he was in negotiations to use his “leverage” and expected a deal.

The defense filed a motion to call an expert on eyewitness identification to testify about the various frailties of such evidence. The motion was denied.

Henry testified and denied committing the crime. He said he got around on foot. On the day of the crime, he said he signed up for an appointment at the First Evangelist Housing Community Development Center at 2826 Martin Luther King Boulevard in the central part of the city. He applied for a job at a Rally's restaurant. He signed in for a job interview at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter sometime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. He applied for a job between 4 p.m. and sundown at McDonald's downtown on Canal Street. Sometime between 3 and 5 p.m., Henry applied for a job at the Red Fish Grill in the Warehouse district. The defense presented witnesses from some of the establishments who recalled Henry coming in to apply.

According to the prosecution’s theory, Henry would have had to arrive at 1930 Duels Street between 11:00 a.m. and 11:57 a.m–after Watts’s son delivered her lunch, commit the crimes, and leave at 1:53 p.m. Traveling on foot, he would have to clean himself, change clothes, and be back downtown on foot or by bus to complete two to four more job applications.

The defense argued that it wasn’t just the time factor that did not compute. None of the witnesses from the businesses testified that a man came into their establishment, in a hurry or smelling of smoke, to sign up for a job.

“They would have remembered that,” the defense argued. “Darrill Henry was cleaned up for job interviews in a white and blue collared shirt. He was intent on getting a job, not committing a crime. He was not dressed in a red shirt, hat and sunglasses to commit a crime that day.”

During closing argument, the prosecutor (the last of a dozen prosecutors who had been variously assigned to the case in the seven years since Henry was indicted) claimed that one of the references Henry listed on a job application—Ms. Dot—was in fact Durelli Watts and that Henry had hung out with Ms. Dot’s grandson. The defense objected since there was no evidence that any of that was true—and it wasn’t. The objection was overruled.

On August 31, 2011, the jury convicted Henry of two counts of first-degree murder. The jury declined to impose the death penalty and Henry was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The defense filed a motion for a new trial based on the prosecution’s misstatement of evidence during closing argument. The woman who was listed as Ms. Dot, Dorothy Ferrand, testified that Henry was her nephew and was using her as a job reference. The motion for a new trial was denied.

In August 2014, the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit upheld Henry’s convictions and sentence.

In October 2016, Henry filed an application for post-conviction relief and requested DNA testing on Watts’s wallet and fingernail scrapings. By that time, Henry was represented by Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project, as well as lawyers from the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, as well as Letty Di Giulio in New Orleans.

The prosecution did not oppose the testing and the request was granted in May 2017. In November 2018, based on the test results, Henry’s legal team filed an amended application for post-conviction relief based on a report from Alan Keel, a DNA analyst at Forensic Analytical Crime Lab, that said DNA testing of the wallet and fingernail scrapings excluded Henry.

In September 2019, at a hearing on the application, Keel testified that the most likely source of foreign DNA under a person’s fingernails was someone with whom the person had intimate, prolonged or violent contact. He said that his tests revealed a mixture of DNA from at least three people, including Watts and at least one male. He said that “some if not all of the male DNA that was recovered” from Watts’s fingernails “likely originates from her assailant.” Keel said that Henry was “absolutely excluded as the source of that DNA.”

Keel also tested the wallet and found male DNA that was not the same male DNA from the fingernails. He said that Henry was excluded from the DNA found on the wallet.

Anne Montgomery, a DNA expert for the prosecution, testified that the results did not exonerate or inculpate Henry because there was no proof that the unidentified male DNA came from Watts’s attacker. Montgomery suggested that Watts was not cleaning her nails “fastidiously,” which could mean the DNA did not belong to the attacker.

On March 11, 2020, Criminal District Court Judge Dennis Waldron vacated Henry’s convictions. “In a case based only on identification, DNA evidence that indicates the possible involvement of one or more other parties, but not the accused, is of significant and critical evidentiary value.”

Judge Waldron noted that the jury that convicted Henry relied upon three eyewitnesses, “and, obviously, found their testimony to be accurate and reliable. The jurors did so without the benefit of the findings of post-conviction DNA testing. Armed with that newly discovered evidence, a reasonable juror could conclude that the defendant was not the killer.”

On May 7, 2020, Henry was released on bond while the prosecution appealed Judge Waldron’s ruling. “I never lost faith that this day would come,” Henry said. “I appreciate what everyone has done to fight to bring me home.”

But the fight was not over.

In July 2020 the court of appeal remanded the case back to Judge Waldron. The appeals court said Waldron had applied the wrong legal standard to make his finding. After another hearing, Judge Waldron again ordered Henry’s convictions vacated. In October, the appeal court upheld Judge Waldron. The prosecution said it would retry Henry.

In anticipation of a retrial, the defense obtained a report from Dr. Nancy Franklin, an expert on eyewitness identification and an emeritus associate professor in the Psychology Department at Stony Brook University. Dr. Franklin concluded that the identifications had been tainted by several factors, including the suggestive lineup in which Henry was the only participant wearing a red shirt—the same color that the witnesses said the gunman was wearing.

“Significant risk was present that the identifications by all three eyewitnesses were in error and had been artificially manufactured through exposure to a range of suggestive influence,” Franklin said in her report. “Reliance solely on eyewitness identification in this case therefore poses high risk of wrongful conviction.”

On January 20, 2023, the prosecution dismissed the charges. District Attorney Jason Williams issued a statement saying the case was “riddled with unsolvable legal problems, but for those very clear and abundant issues, we would have re-tried this case.”

Henry expressed relief. “I can finally breathe,” he said. “I knew this would happen. I just didn’t know when. I never doubted it.”

Potkin noted that Henry’s ordeal had begun back in 2004 and “for seven years he awaited trial not knowing if he would be sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. He was eventually shipped off to Angola prison where he was condemned to spend the rest of his life, enduring eight years of imprisonment while his two young children grew into adults and mother and other close family members passed away.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/21/2023
Last Updated: 2/21/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:28
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes