Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount of the jury award.
A federal jury awarded a North Carolina man who spent more than 20 years in prison $6 million Wednesday, after finding a detective fabricated evidence and performed an inadequate investigation that led to double murder and arson convictions.
The jury found former Durham police detective Darryl Dowdy made up evidence in the case and trial that resulted in Darryl Howard being convicted in 1995 of killing Doris Washington, 29, and her 13-year-old daughter Nishonda in 1991.
Howard was sentenced to 80 years, but his sentence was cut short in 2016 when a Durham County judge vacated his convictions, citing police and prosecutorial misconduct.
In 2017, Howard filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused Dowdy, the city of Durham and others of actions that resulted in Howard being wrongfully convicted, but the defendants were narrowed to Dowdy over time. Testimony started Nov. 9.
Howard and one of his attorneys described the federal verdict as mixed.
They are glad the jury recognized Dowdy’s misdeeds but said they had had hoped for a figure much closer to the $48 million in damages they requested.
Nick Brustin, one of Howard’s attorneys, said the defense’s strategy of attacking Howard for abusing and selling drugs and being shot multiple times was effective.
“I think to some extent the racist defense that they have been implementing since the beginning of the ligation has in some ways succeeded,” he said.
“I think the verdict doesn’t value the suffering that Darryl went though,” he added.
Dowdy, 65, who denies the accusations in the lawsuit, worked for the Durham Police Department for 36 years before he retired in 2007.
His attorney, Nick Ellis, said they accept the jury’s decision but disagree with its conclusions.
“We have complete faith in that investigation,” Ellis said.
Howard’s attorneys had sought $48 million in damages: $2 million for each year of the 21 1/2 years he spent in prison and $5 million for the the impact on his life after he was released.
“It’s a huge number,” Emma Freudenberger, one of Howard’s attorneys, told the jury. “And you know what? It is not nearly enough.”
Ellis told the jury it should award no more than $500,000, considering his drug addiction, drug dealing and being shot about 10 times in five incidents.
Brustin said he doesn’t believe Dowdy’s brazen and unsupervised actions are unique to this case.
“The kinds of misconduct are pattern misconduct,” he said, saying the Durham Police Department should review his other cases.
Mother and daughter found dead
Dowdy’s investigation started 30 years ago after firefighters found Washington and her teenage daughter dead in a public housing apartment set ablaze after midnight on Nov. 27, 1991.
They were naked, lying face down on a bed, strangled and beaten. Autopsies found a tear in Washington’s vagina and sperm in Nishonda’s anus. 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 that 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 was from consensual sex Nishonda had with her boyfriend.
After Howard’s convictions were vacated, the Durham County District Attorney’s Office decided not to re-try the case.
What Howard argued
Howard’s attorneys have argued that Washington and her daughter were raped and killed by 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 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 said 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 had 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 provided varying explanations at the trial, in his deposition and his court testimony, including that 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 before the killing, 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.
Howard’s innocence still questioned
Howard did not have to prove his innocence because the civil trial focused on Dowdy’s actions, but his attorneys still took 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 said he still believes Howard is guilty and that Oliver and others indicating he changed their statements are lying.
Howard’s legal team 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.
What Dowdy said
Dowdy’s attorneys argued the case wasn’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, including 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.
Questions the jury considered
The specific questions the jury considered include whether Dowdy:
▪ Fabricated evidence regarding Oliver’s statement and evidence that supported Nishonda Washington having consensual sex before the killing.
▪ Withheld evidence regarding witness Roneka 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.
The jury found that Dowdy fabricated evidence and performed an inadequate investigation, but not that he suppressed evidence.
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