DeAndre Howard spent more than a decade in prison for a murder he knew he didn’t commit. After years of fighting for his innocence from behind bars, a federal judge had finally granted him an appeal. Prosecutors, he said, gave him a choice. He could plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and get out in time for a Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Or he could go back to trial and risk spending the rest of his life in prison.
He chose trial. That felt final. It felt right. “There was no need to compromise your integrity just so you can go free,” he said. “I felt that’s something you have to hold firm to even if your life is on the line.” On Friday, after 11 years behind bars, Howard, 31, walked out of a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles a free man after a jury acquitted him of murder and attempted murder.
Dressed in a black jumpsuit from county jail, he had trouble finding a pay phone. Someone let him borrow a cellphone. He made several calls to relatives who weren’t expecting his release until several days later. A cousin picked him up at a bus stop near the courthouse. “I was looking at all the buildings and breathing the nice cold air,” he said. “This was freedom.”
The wrongful arrest in 2002, he says, came just as troubles in his life were compounding. Growing up in South L.A., his grandmother was the force of stability. But after she was killed in a shooting in the late 1980s, he said, his life began to unravel. He spent his time scrimping together change to buy hot dogs and diapers for his siblings. Eventually, they landed in the foster care system. At 18, he set a goal for himself: If he didn’t sign up for school or get a job in a year, he’d join the Army or the Navy.
But that never happened. In 1999 he was arrested for selling crack. The next year he did prison time on a forgery charge. He was released in February 2002, five months before the summer evening that changed his life. On July 8, an employee at a liquor store at 42nd and Hoover streets had just started his break when he heard what he thought were firecrackers. He turned and saw a man firing a gun at two others, later identified as Mark Freeman, who was killed, and Arthur Ragland. The shooter got back into a white vehicle and drove off, court documents say.
The crux of the case was whether Howard was that shooter. Although the liquor store employee and Freeman’s former girlfriend, who had seen the shooting from down the street, initially picked Howard’s face out of a photo lineup, court documents say the woman later testified that she had seen the shooter’s profile and couldn’t tell who it was.
Howard maintained his innocence and, according to court documents, urged his attorney to contact Ragland, the surviving victim. That never happened, according to the records. At trial, the jury initially deadlocked. The judge asked jurors to continue deliberating, and they eventually found Howard guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 75 years to life, plus a consecutive life term.
From behind bars, Howard fought for his innocence. He began filing a flurry of appeals, which hinged on his belief that his trial lawyer hadn’t properly defended him. His main point of concern was that his lawyer had never interviewed Ragland. He said his position was bolstered in 2004 when Ragland sent a letter to Howard’s appellate attorney saying that Howard wasn’t the gunman. “The truth remains DeAndre Howard never attempted to murder me,” Ragland stated in a declaration. “Neither did he murder victim Mark Anthony Freeman.”
A U.S. magistrate judge, nonetheless, denied Howard’s request to overturn the conviction in 2007. Howard appealed again. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the fact that Howard’s attorney hadn’t interviewed Ragland was significant. “One would normally expect the surviving victim to be a star witness for the prosecution,” the court wrote. “A reasonable attorney would therefore have attempted to interview Ragland to prepare for trial.”
The 2010 appeals court decision remanded it back to the lower court to test the merits of Howard’s allegations. After the appeal, the case went back to district court and spent the next year or so making its way through the system. A judge eventually overturned the conviction, but Howard wasn’t freed because prosecutors sought to retry him. The case concluded last week with the jury’s verdict. At his most recent trial, Howard said he spent the day when jurors were deliberating reading his Bible and praying. “I just kept saying not guilty, not guilty,” he said.
As the judge got the jury’s verdict, Howard noticed a smile. He wasn’t sure what it meant. Then he knew: Not guilty. It was the vindication he’d waited for — the assurance that he had been right not to take the plea deal. Jennifer Turner, a lawyer with the federal public defender’s office who defended Howard during his habeas proceedings, said she was overjoyed at Howard’s release. “He was finally represented by an attorney who investigated the case … and actually advocated for Mr. Howard,” she said. “The difference between the two trials was the quality of representation that Mr. Howard had.”
Still , she says, it’s an imperfect result. “There’s nothing that an attorney or any of us can do to get back the 11 years of his life that were lost to this case,” she said. “But aside from that, this was the most justice we could hope for.”
As Howard reflected Saturday on his long legal battle, he admits that going back to trial was a big risk, but one that he reasoned he had to take. “It was my way of fighting back — take it to trial,” he said.