RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Darryl Howard walked out of jail Wednesday celebrating with his family as he tasted freedom for the first time in more than two decades.
Earlier that day, a judge threw out Howard’s double-murder conviction and allowed him to go home after 21 years in prison.
The 54-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the 1991 murders of a mother and daughter but the judge said Howard’s defense had proven there was reasonable doubt Howard committed the crimes.
While Howard has yet to be officially exonerated, it highlights the rise of exonerations for those who have been wrongly convicted.
Jamie Lau, Supervising Attorney with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School, says last year saw the highest number of exonerations from wrongful convictions. According to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 149 people were cleared of crimes for which they had been convicted.
“2015 was a banner year for exposing wrongful convictions,” Lau said.
New DNA testing has made up for about a quarter of all exonerations. In the case of Darryl Howard, new DNA evidence surfaced that was not available when he was first convicted in 1995.
“I told them I didn’t do it,” said Howard after his release. “And I fought every step of the way.”
Howard was also represented by the Innocence Project. Lau says those kinds of organizations, along with clinics at law schools like Duke, give inmates an advocate to fight for them.
“Often times the inmates themselves are left to their own devices to try to advocate on their own behalf, which is incredibly difficult,” Lau said.
Howard’s case was tried by then Assistant District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was later disbarred and held in contempt for his actions in the Duke Lacrosse case.
Howard’s attorney claimed the jury at the time did not know about evidence that implicated another man.
“There is no physical evidence against him. There’s no hair, there’s no DNA, there are no fingerprints anywhere. There is no property from the apartment that was found on Mr. Howard. There is no evidence Mr. Howard was even in the apartment,” said attorney James Cooney.
The District Attorney’s office has not yet decided if they will re-try Howard but his attorneys say they’re confident after looking at the evidence, the DA’s office will feel another trial is unnecessary.