By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH N.C. (Reuters) - A North Carolina man who spent nearly two decades in prison for murder will be released as early as this week as he awaits a new trial.
Darryl Anthony Howard, 52, was awarded a new trial in May after a judge found misconduct during his 1995 conviction. On Tuesday, a state appeals court denied prosecutors’ request to keep Howard behind bars until they try him again, paving the way for his release.
Seema Saifee, one of Howard’s attorneys, delivered the news to him by phone early Tuesday.
“There was just this moment of pure joy,” said Saifee, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Innocence Project, which seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. “He has been waiting for this for so many years. He never gave up,” she added.
In overturning Howard’s conviction, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson found that prosecutors withheld evidence and that a police officer misled the jury. Hudson called Howard’s prosecution one of the “most horrendous” he’s seen in a 34-year career.
The district attorney who initially prosecuted Howard, Michael Nifong, was disbarred in 2007 for his role in prosecuting several members of the Duke University lacrosse team who were falsely accused of rape.
No physical evidence connected Howard to the deaths of Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter Nishonda in a Durham housing complex in 1991.
Shortly after the murders, a tipster implicated two members of a drug-related gang called the New York Boys in the crime. A police record of that account, which included references to the victims’ rape that had not been publicized at the time, was never shared with Howard’s defense attorneys.
DNA tests at the time showed that semen found in the victims was not Howard’s, but Nifong argued in court that the murders were unrelated to a sexual assault.
Recent tests have linked the samples to a convicted felon with a history of assaulting women.
Current prosecutors have indicated they will retry Howard, and asked Friday that he be held in jail rather than released on bail until his new trial. They cited his criminal record before the arrests, which included convictions for armed robbery and breaking and entering.
Saifee said she hopes prosecutors will choose not to seek a new trial, and instead focus on prosecuting the alternate suspects implicated by DNA tests.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)