DA’s office needs “integrity unit,” Howard’s advocates say

Jul. 11, 2014 @ 06:47 PM

A man who served nearly two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit says the Darryl Howard case should spark a move to establish an “integrity unit” to look for unjust convictions.

“This is an opportunity for freedom, not just for Darryl Howard but for Durham and North Carolina, to do the right thing and free other men and women,” said Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem man who was exonerated in 2005.

Hunt added that there are “plenty more” cases worthy of scrutiny that “we know of.”

His suggestion was echoed Friday by Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New-York-City-based Innocence Project and one of the lawyers representing Howard in his attempt to secure a new trial.

Scheck said the scrutiny should start with any cases handled by former District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was disbarred in 2007 for, in part, withholding exculpatory evidence in the Duke lacrosse case.

Nifong as an assistant district attorney conducted the prosecution of Howard in 1995. Howard’s attorneys – with formal backing since May from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson – say the prosecutor withheld a Durham Police Department memo that would’ve helped Howard’s trial lawyer.

Scheck noted that chief prosecutors in New York and Texas jurisdictions have made a point of conducting follow-up scrutiny of cases involving cops or prosecutors known to have worked to frame the innocent.

“The way I look at it is that Mike Nifong has been disbarred and sanctioned for his conduct in the Duke lacrosse case for suppressing exculpatory evidence, and now we have proof he did it in [Howard’s] case,” Scheck said.

“What I hope is going to happen eventually is that, upon reflection, our colleagues and friends in the district attorney’s office, when the courts finally act in this case, are going to evaluate the whole situation and agree that they need a conviction integrity unit, that they need to do an audit of Nifong cases, just as Darryl Hunt has called for,” he added.

Hunt’s 1984 case is perhaps North Carolina’s best-known false murder conviction to date.

He was accused and twice convicted of raping and killing Deborah Sykes, a copy editor for the Twin City Sentinel, then the city’s afternoon newspaper.

But in 1994, DNA testing established that he wasn’t the man who had sexually assaulted Sykes. After another decade of legal back-and-forth, Hunt was exonerated, and another man whose DNA did match that of the woman’s attacker pleaded guilty to the crime.

Hunt now works with the Innocence Project, and was on hand with Scheck on Friday to help make the case for releasing Howard from prison on an unsecured bond while he waits for a new trial. Lawyers said Hunt will help mentor Howard after his release.

The suggestion of an integrity unit drew a cautious response Friday from Roger Echols, the assistant district attorney who’s in line to take over next year from Interim District Attorney Leon Stanback.

Echols received the Democratic Party’s nomination for DA in May’s primary and isn’t facing any opposition from Republicans in the fall general election.

He indicated that budget constraints, and potential overlap with the work of the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, would argue against setting up an in-house unit.

“Having said that, I’m certainly interested in working with any attorney who has valid reasons to look at a case and determine whether or not it needs to be reopened,” Echols said. “That’s not limited to any current or former prosecutor’s cases, or any in particular. I would do that with anyone.”

State government controls the budget and staffing of the DA’s office in Durham and other North Carolina counties. And whether it’s been under Democratic or Republican control, the N.C. General Assembly hasn’t exactly been generous in funding the court system, lawyers said.

City and county governments sometimes use grants and occasional injection of local tax revenue to fund judicial and prosecutorial positions the state won’t.