Man imprisoned 21 years for murders he didn’t commit can sue two more Durham cops

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  • Darryl Howard, imprisoned for 21 years for two murders he didn't commit, can continue to pursue a lawsuit against two Durham police officers. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Howard can move forward with a complaint based on law enforcement work that took place in 2011.
  • A jury already has awarded Howard $6 million for his claims against a third officer.
  • The 4th Circuit blocked Howard from proceeding with a case against the city of Durham. Appellate judges also ruled Howard could not seek a larger jury verdict.

A split 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals panel has ruled that Darryl Howard can pursue a lawsuit against two additional Durham police officers. A jury already has awarded Howard $6 million from a third officer who helped keep Howard imprisoned for 21 years for two murders he didn’t commit.

The panel split, 2-1, in a decision Monday allowing Howard to pursue his complaint against officers Scott Pennica and Michelle Soucie. At the same time, judges agreed unanimously that Howard could not pursue his case against the city of Durham. Judges also agreed unanimously that Howard could not seek a larger jury award against the third officer, Darrell Dowdy.

In November 1991, the Durham Fire Department discovered the dead bodies of Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda, at the scene of an apartment fire at the Few Gardens public housing development.

Both victims had been strangled, while the mother died from a fatal blow to the abdomen. Both also showed evidence of sexual assault.

Authorities charged Howard. A jury convicted him in 1995 of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

DNA evidence later exonerated Howard. A judge vacated his sentence in December 2016. Gov, Roy Cooper granted him a pardon of innocence in 2021.

The complaint against Pennica and Soucie involves their role in the case in 2011, while Howard was seeking DNA evidence that would help him secure his freedom. Both officers failed to turn over evidence required by a Superior Court order, Howard’s lawyers claimed. Specifically, the case focused on an interview Pennica and Soucie conducted with a different suspect, Jermeck Jones.

“Here, Howard claims that Pennica and Soucie violated his due process rights by suppressing exculpatory evidence that a state court ordered to be disclosed under North Carolina’s post-conviction relief statutes,” wrote Judge James Wynn. “As such, we must consider whether North Carolina law created a liberty interest for Howard to demonstrate his innocence post-conviction, and whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Pennica and Soucie violated that interest by intentionally withholding evidence of the Jones interview.”

Wynn and fellow Judge Robert Bruce King decided the case should return to a jury to settle the complaints against Pennica and Soucie. Judge Marvin Quattlebaum dissented from that part of the ruling.

“In a thorough order, the district court properly explained that for Howard to prevail on his claim that Pennica and Soucie violated his due process rights to post-conviction evidence by suppressing evidence of their 2011 interview with Jermeck Jones, he had to show that the officers acted in bad faith,” Quattlebaum wrote. “Then, the district court concluded that Howard failed to present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that Pennica and Soucie acted with that state of mind.”

All three judges agreed that Howard could proceed no further with a case against the city of Durham. Nor can he challenge the $6 million jury award against Dowdy.

Howard’s lawyers argued that Dowdy introduced “various improper character evidence” that limited jurors’ interest in awarding money to the falsely imprisoned man.

“Howard challenges four categories of evidence: the nature and extent of his drug use and drug dealing, his prior arrests for trespassing into public housing, his sexual relationships with a witness … and another woman, and instances where he had been a victim of gun violence,” Wynn wrote. “Howard argues that Dowdy used this evidence to attack his character and suggest to the jury that it should either ignore the violation of Howard’s constitutional rights or award him lower damages. We conclude, however, that Howard cannot show an abuse of discretion by the district court in permitting the introduction of this evidence.”

The three judges all rejected Dowdy’s appeal for a new trial.