A US judge has thrown out the double-murder conviction of Darryl Howard, who spent 21 years in jail. Orlando Hudson, a superior court judge said on Wednesday (31 August) that DNA evidence not available at Howard's murder trial would have created a reasonable doubt for jurors who found him guilty.

"There's no time to be angry," Howard said in the courtroom. "I'm thankful this is over and I can move on with my life and do other things. I'm just happy right now." He left the jail with his wife, Nannie, whom he married three years after he was incarcerated. Howard gave her credit for persevering with lawyers who work on wrongful conviction cases.

The judge found reasonable doubt in the murder conviction and granted him a new trial. "I don't see any reason why he can't be released today," he said in an abc report. Hudson stated that he would order Howard's immediate release.

The judge had previously been in favour of ordering Howard's release two years ago, calling it "a horrendous prosecution" which ignored "there was extremely credible, strong evidence that Mr. Howard did not commit" the crime. However, a state appeals court ruled that Hudson had not heard enough evidence to make such a ruling.

Ex-district attorney Mike Nifong had been expected to testify on Wednesday (31 August) about his handling of Howard's case and whether misconduct from police and prosecutors helped secure a conviction. Nifong was disbarred from practice and jailed for his handling of another trial, the Duke University lacrosse case.

But prosecutors decided not to appeal the judge's order throwing out the conviction. This cleared the way for Howard to be set free.

54-year-old Howard was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in 1995 of Doris Washington, 29, and Nishonda, her 13-year-old daughter, at a Durham public housing complex. Both were sexually assaulted, and their apartment was burned. The North Carolina man was sentenced to serve an 80-year sentence at a Warren County prison.

Howard's DNA was never found at the crime scene. At the 1995 trial, prosecutors relied on witnesses who told police they had seen him at the apartment that day. The 1991 killings were described as revenge for an acrimonious drug deal.

A police informant said the women were probably killed because Washington allowed drug dealers to sell from her apartment, and they thought she was to blame when $8,000 worth of drugs went missing.

Later DNA testing of samples taken from the two bodies showed sperm left by a convicted felon who has a history of drug dealing and violence against women, said Howard's attorneys from the New York-based Innocence Project.