Goldsboro — The declaration that Dwayne Allen Dail was wrongly imprisoned on child rape charges for 18 years was a moment of great sadness for the man who originally prosecuted him.
"It was every prosecutor's nightmare that you somehow participated in putting an innocent man in jail," said Don Strickland, a former assistant district attorney who was responsible for the prosecution at Dail's trial.
"So, my reaction is, it caused me a lot of depression," he said.
On Tuesday, Wayne County Superior Court Judge Jack Hooks Jr. declared Dail innocent of a child rape that occurred on Sept. 4, 1987. The nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence helped find DNA evidence that proved Dail was not the attacker in a rape at the girl's Goldsboro home.
Standard procedure dictated that all the evidence from Dail’s case should have been destroyed after a period of time, but authorities found a journal kept by the lead investigator in the case, which he passed to another detective upon his retirement. It led Dail's lawyers to a box of evidence stored at the police department that had never been destroyed because it wasn't used at trial.
Strickland said he pushed forward with the prosecution because the 12-year-old victim positively identified Dail as her attacker. Dail had been spending time with numerous friends in the neighborhood before and after the rape, and the girl's mother asked the victim if Dail was the man who had attacked her, said Christine Mumma, Dail's current lawyer.
Hair found at the scene was also found to be microscopically consistent with Dail's.
"We had, not the strongest case in the world, but we had a case. And in the days before DNA, that's what we did," Strickland said.
"You had a little, 12-year-old girl who, there is no question about it, she was brutally raped. And she said, 'That's the man who did it,'" he continued.
Strickland said he told the victim they could stop the case before going to trial if she had any doubts, but she stayed solid in her identification of Dail in testimony at the 1989 trial.
At one point, prosecutors offered Dail a plea deal under which he would plead no contest to charges of taking indecent liberties with a minor and receive only three years' probation in return.
Asked by WRAL why he didn't take the deal, Dail responded: "I didn't do it. Nobody would have gotten justice in that. Me or her. Somebody did that to that girl. And somebody needs to pay for that."
During the trial's closing arguments, Strickland remarked on Dail's remarkable confidence in his innocence in the face of such serious charges, Dail said.
After being sentenced to two life sentences, plus 18 years, Dail continued to maintain his innocence from behind bars. His exoneration justified all that confidence, Dail said at his release Tuesday.
"I'd like to tell Mr. Donald Strickland that I'm as confident and cavalier today as I have ever been in my life," Dail said.
Strickland expressed regret about Dail's wrongful conviction, but said he acted on the evidence available at the time.
"I feel very bad about it, but I don't have any guilt, because I don't think I've done anything wrong," he said. "I proceeded with the case as I had it."
Dail said he was undone by his faith in the justice system.
"I can tell you this for a fact, I would not walkin there with the faith I had when I was 20," he said. "I never thought that I could ever be convicted. I had faith in a system that I was innocent.
"And I didn’t have no idea that innocent people were sent to prison. I thought if you didn’t do anything, then you didn’t have nothing to worry about," he continued. "And that is ignorant."
According to the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence, around 200 wrongly imprisoned inmates across the nation have been exonerated by the work of nonprofit agencies. The Center receives around 1,000 claims of innocence by N.C. inmates each year, said Mumma, who is also the Center’s executive director.
Successfully exonerating wrongly convicted inmates is an uphill battle, because eyewitness testimony and physical evidence can often prove to be inaccurate, helping move juries to wrongful convictions, Mumma said.
“You write down all the humans that come into contact with each case, and there is a lot of potential for human error – unintentional, unavoidable human error,” she said earlier.
Strickland agreed that Dail was the victim of judicial system that should have protected his good name and freedom.
"I've had some stronger (cases), I've had some weaker, and there is just no perfect system of justice," he said.
With an official reopening of the case by the Goldsboro Police Department, that judicial system is once more investigating the 20-year-old rape. Investigators are talking with the victim again and reviewing the old case files.
"It definitely has challenges because of the time frame, but I'd like to feel pretty confident that we'll reach a resolution," Sgt. Chad Calloway of the Goldsboro police said.
The newly uncovered DNA evidence could be the key to breaking the case, said investigators, who declined to say if they had found possible matches in the State Bureau of Investigation database.
Released from prison, Dail said he's moved past anger at the child who identified him as the rapist and bitterness at the real perpetrator.
"I cannot possible have hard feelings against a child who has been sexually assaulted," he said. "Bitterness doesn't hurt anyone, but yourself and maybe the people that you love."
In the future, Dail said he may write a book or go to college. He's also enjoying reconnecting with his 17-year-old son Chris Michaels, who was born after he went to prison.
"He's grown up only seeing his father in prison, and that's a terrible way for a kid to grow up," Dail said.
"It's over, so we can now start spending more time together and getting to know each other a lot better," Michaels said.
For now, Dail said he's enjoying the "Four F's": "Freedom. Family. Friends. And food."