Judge weighs if N. Carolina man wrongly convicted of murders

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina man was wrongly convicted of killing a woman and her daughter two decades ago in part because jurors didn't know about DNA evidence that implicated another man, defense attorneys said Monday.

Lawyers for Darryl Howard, who has been in prison for 21 years, told a judge that he deserves a new trial because of new DNA evidence and misconduct by police and prosecutors, including ex-district attorney Mike Nifong, who was disbarred and jailed for his handling of the Duke University lacrosse case.

"In other words, based on these (DNA) results and based on the evidence presented at the original trial, would a reasonable juror have a reasonable doubt about Mr. Howard's guilt?" Jim Cooney, an attorney working with the Innocence Project, told the judge.

Prosecutors said witnesses who lived in the same housing project as the victims placed Howard at the scene of crimes around the time they happened. Howard was convicted of strangling Doris Washington, 29, and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison in 1995.

Howard, 54, has remained behind bars ever since. On Monday, he sat with his wrists in handcuffs alongside his attorneys, including Barry Scheck, who was part of a team that won an acquittal at the 1995 murder trial of ex-NFL star O.J. Simpson.

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson is hearing three days of arguments before deciding if Howard should get a new trial.

Two years ago, the judge threw out Howard's conviction, but a state appeals court ruled he should have considered a broader range of evidence before his ruling.

In 2011, DNA tests — unavailable at the time of Howard's trial — identified a Tennessee convict as the man who had sex with Doris Washington shortly before her 1991 death. That man, Jermeck Jones, told police he had dated Nishonda Washington.

Jones was in court Monday and appointed an attorney, who said he would refuse to testify based on his constitutional right against incriminating himself.

An unidentified second man's semen was found in Nishonda's body, but it was not Howard's, DNA analysis expert Meghan Clement testified Monday.

The girl was sexually assaulted on the same bed as her mother before both were killed and their apartment set on fire.

Jurors at Howard's 1995 trial knew that neither DNA nor physical evidence tied Howard to the crime, prosecutor Stormy Ellis told the judge.

Jurors "listened. They looked at the witnesses. They evaluated the credibility of the witnesses. And they came back that even though his DNA was not there, that he was guilty," Ellis said.

Marilyn Miller, a forensic sciences professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Howard's trial lacked physical evidence in part because police investigators didn't thoroughly comb the crime scene.

Based on her experience as a crime scene investigator in the 1990s, "I would have done more than what was done here," said Miller, an expert witness hired by Howard's team. What is clear from the DNA is that there was no evidence Howard was there, she said.

Also expected to testify is Nifong, the former Durham County district attorney. The judge said in his 2014 ruling that Nifong failed to share with defense attorneys a police memo and other evidence that pointed to suspects other than Howard. A Durham police detective testified at Howard's trial that investigators never considered that the sexual assaults were linked to the killers. Nifong repeated that claim despite a police memo in the prosecution's files that contradicted him.

Nifong was disbarred in June 2007 for his handling of the Duke University lacrosse case, in which three Duke athletes were accused of raping a stripper hired to entertain a team party. State investigators later determined Nifong lied and buried evidence proving the lacrosse players were innocent. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the players victims of a "tragic rush to accuse." Nifong served a day in jail for contempt of court.


Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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