After more than 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, Steve Barnes has rejoined his family just in time for Thanksgiving.
Barnes walked out of Oneida County Court a free man Tuesday after a judge agreed new DNA evidence cleared him of raping and killing 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in 1985.
"I'm overwhelmed. This is the happiest day of my life," said Barnes, now 42. "I've been waiting for this day for 20 years. I never gave up hope. I knew this day would eventually come."
Asked about his immediate plans, Barnes said he was looking forward to a holiday meal with his family and "to saying grace and carving the turkey."
Sylvia Bouchard said she learned her son had been cleared when defense attorney Alba Morales called Friday and told her to set another place for Thanksgiving dinner. She said she went out and bought a bigger turkey.
"When you have a loved one in prison ... there are no special days, no holidays. You go through the motions but you don't really celebrate," said Bouchard, who visited her son weekly while he was in prison. "It's a dream come true. It's nothing short of a miracle. I knew from day one he was innocent. Now everybody knows my son is innocent."
Simon's nude and bruised body was discovered along the Mohawk River in Whitestown in September 1985. More than two years would pass before Barnes was charged with raping and killing Simon, an acquaintance who was a few years behind him at Whitesboro High School.
Tried in 1989, Barnes was convicted of rape, sodomy, depraved indifference murder and two counts of murder related to the underlying sexual crimes.
Witnesses claimed they saw Barnes with Simon near the crime scene. Police said they found an imprint of Simon's jeans on dirt covering Barnes' pickup truck. And a jail inmate testified that Barnes had discussed the girl's death.
Although DNA from semen was recovered, the samples were too small to provide conclusive evidence, prosecutors said. DNA testing technology was only a few years old in the 1980s and quite limited.
Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project, said Barnes was sent to prison on circumstantial evidence, not because of any misconduct or negligence by police and prosecutors.
"If this technology had existed in 1985, Steve Barnes would never have even been arrested," said District Attorney Scott McNamara.
Barnes always maintained his innocence.
Bouchard first contacted The Innocence Project in 1992 and the group took up his case in 1996, persuading authorities to re-examine the DNA evidence. But the results came back inconclusive because the genetic material had deteriorated, said Morales, the defense lawyer.
This year, the Innocence Project - a national organization that takes up cases of wrongful conviction - convinced the DA's office to again test the DNA.
Tuesday's court proceeding took five minutes, most taken up by McNamara's explanation that the new DNA testing "definitively excluded" Barnes as a suspect and made his case "totally unprosecutable."
Morales said four new DNA samples were tested using a procedure more advanced in dealing with deteriorated or limited genetic material. Two samples came from a rape kit, while two others were from Simon's clothing, she said.
Despite a warning from Judge Michael Dwyer, the standing room only crowd burst into applause and shouts of joy as Barnes was freed. Friends and family surrounded him, offering hugs and handshakes.
"I feel bad for the Simon family. I hope the real perpetrator is caught someday," Barnes said.
Barnes said he was looking forward to learning how to use the Internet and a cell phone, technologies in their infancy when he was sent to prison. He also said he planned to work with the Innocence Project "to return the favor back."
Barnes said he was not angry at anyone for 20 years of lost freedom.
"They say life begins at 40," Barnes said, drawing cheers from crowd of family and friends who pressed around him.
Barnes said he had not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit over his wrongful imprisonment.
Authorities have renewed their investigation into Simon's death, McNamara said. Although authorities do not have suspects, he said investigators have begun comparing the DNA findings with national databases.
McNamara said the Simon family was devastated when he told them about Barnes' exoneration.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit group founded in 1992 to exonerate innocent prisoners, has helped free more than 200 people, including Roy Brown of Auburn, who was freed in January 2007 after 15 years behind bars.
Brown, who has sued the state for $5 million for his wrongful imprisonment, was in court Tuesday to support Barnes.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
An Oneida County Court judge today ordered that the 1989 convictions of 42-year-old Steven Barnes be vacated, and also ordered that Barnes be released immediately. Dozens of relatives and supporters who jammed a Utica courtroom applauded when the judge vacated Steven Barnes' rape and murder convictions and the sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Barnes had served nearly 20 years for the 1985 murder of 16-year-old Kimberly Simon of Marcy, a crime he has maintained he did not commit. Recent DNA evidence could not link him to the victim. Barnes was a classmate of Simon at Whitesboro High School.
The Innocence Project took up Barnes' case 12 years ago and worked with the Oneida County District Attorney's office to get the conviction vacated based on new DNA evidence.
After the judge ordered his release Tuesday morning, Barnes said it was the happiest day of his life.
The Oneida County District Attorney's office has announced the formation of a task force to re-investigate the sexual assault and murder of Kimberly Simon. The DA's office, Oneida County Sheriff's Office, Utica Police Department, and Rome Police Department have been assigned to assist with the case. They ask that anyone with any information call 315-798-5400.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.