Innocent man released from prison after 24 years enjoys first full day as a free man

KINSTON, N.C. (WNCN) – On Thursday, Howard Dudley spent his first full day as a free man in nearly 25 years.

“[I] put on jeans, a shirt, casual clothes. This feels great,” he said.

He’s spent the last two decades in a prison uniform.

A Lenoir County judge decided to free Dudley on Wednesday after rehearing his case.

Dudley was convicted in 1992 after his daughter claimed he molested her. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Howard Dudley has maintained his innocence over the years. His daughter retracted her story.

This week, the conviction was overturned.

One of the first things Howard Dudley did after being released was visit his mother and wife. He had to go to the cemetery to do so.

“This is like closure to me,” said Howard Dudley. “I didn’t attend either of their funerals.”

Both of them died while he was behind bars. He made a promise to himself that he would visit as soon as he could.

“It’s a little hard, but this is something I had to do,” he said while looking at his mother’s grave.

While Howard Dudley is learning to live without old faces, he’s getting used to some new ones, too — his grandchildren.

Dennis Dudley is Howard Dudley’s son. Dennis Dudley was just two years old when his dad was sentenced to life. Now, he has a two-year-old son himself.

Dennis Dudley says he’s excited for his son to have his grandfather around to see him grow up.

“It’ll mean a lot,” he said.

Though his dad was imprisoned for most of his youth, Dennis Dudley says he could still count on him to be a mentor.

“He definitely still played his role the best way he could,” said Dennis Dudley.

And that’s inspired him as a father.

“If he could do it in there, I should be able to do it out here,” he said.

Dennis Dudley says his entire family is spiritual. He wants other families in a similar situation to keep pushing for justice.

“You just have to keep fighting on until something happens,” he said.

Howard Dudley says he couldn’t have made it this far without his faith.

“There were times when my faith wavered. There were times when I faltered, but God was there to pick me up. That’s who I give the glory to,” said Howard Dudley.

Now he’s looking to move on.

In order to be pardoned, the district attorney must first dismiss Dudley’s charges. His attorneys say they’re hopeful that will happen soon.

Then, Howard Dudley will be available for up to $750,000 in compensation.

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