A man who was wrongly imprisoned for more than 19 years was fully exonerated Friday when prosecutors formally dismissed murder and rape charges against him.
Steven Barnes was freed from prison on Nov. 25 after DNA tests pushed by the national Innocence Project confirmed he did not rape 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in 1985.
Although his conviction was vacated when he was released, the original indictment was not dismissed, meaning he could have been tried again for the crime.
"The last few weeks have been amazing, but today I finally feel free," Barnes said after the brief hearing in Oneida County Court.
"I'm moving on with my life, and part of that will be doing everything I can to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else," Barnes said.
"When I was in prison, I would read about other people who were exonerated after 10, 15 or 20 years, and I wondered if my time would ever come. I want people to know that wrongful convictions happen in New York and that our elected officials can and should pass reforms to prevent them," he said.
Simon's partially nude body was found in a wooded area along the Mohawk River Sept. 19, 1985. She had been beaten, raped and strangled.
DNA evidence from two unknown males was recovered from Simon's body and clothing at the time, but limited forensic technology in the 1980s could not produce any conclusive results.
Following a trial in 1989 that was based primarily on circumstantial evidence, observations by passing motorists, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Barnes, then 23, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors are waiting on current DNA tests to determine if the genetic material they recovered matches or excludes any other "people of interest."
In the meantime, the Oneida County District Attorney's Office has formed a task force to investigate Simon's death.
"I hope they catch the real killer, because then there will be closure for real," Barnes said.
Now that he is exonerated, Barnes will be eligible to seek compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
New York is one of 25 states with a law granting compensation to wrongfully convicted people, said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a national organization that takes up cases of wrongful conviction. There is no cap on the amount of compensation people can receive under the law.
DNA testing has exonerated 24 people New York, Scheck said. In a report released last year, the Innocence Project concluded that New York leads the nation in wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing but lags behind other states in enacting policy reforms to make the criminal justice system more fair and effective.
The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Convictions is studying this issue, and will issue its report later this month, Scheck said.