After 17 years in prison - most of it seeking DNA tests to prove his innocence - Lonnie Erby walked free Monday because genetic testing conclusively showed he had not committed two of the three rapes for which he was convicted.
Officials accepted his innocence of the third crime as well and canceled all three convictions in connection with the apparent serial rapes of three girls in separate incidents in 1985 in St. Louis.
Erby won the tests with the help of the Innocence Project and over the objections of Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, who later changed her mind and on Monday joined a celebration that lauded the results.
The event cooled, at least for the moment, a sometimes-bitter struggle between the Innocence Project and Joyce's standards for contesting DNA reviews.
Erby, who was sentenced in 1986 to 115 years in prison, was hugged Monday by his sister and a son he had seen just once during his prison term.
"I've got dreams, you know. I want to go places and do things that I never got the chance to do," said Erby, 49, surrounded by a throng of well-wishers.
Circuit Judge Jimmie Edwards, who ordered Erby released, said, "I'm sorry for your wrongful conviction. As you know, the science of today is not the science of yesterday."
The judge's decision came eight years after the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group formed by defense attorneys, first asked that evidence against Erby be made available for DNA testing.
Joyce fought it, taking the position that DNA testing causes unnecessary upheaval for victims and their families and unneeded expense in cases in which it cannot conclusively rule out guilt.
"I did not feel that we had a situation where the DNA could exonerate him," she said.
Since one of the three victims had bathed away evidence of semen, Joyce indicated, it could be argued that DNA could not conclusively say Erby was innocent of all three crimes.
Every victim had picked out Erby as her attacker, officials said.
But after a circuit judge ordered testing in the case, and the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld it, Joyce agreed to permit it.
She appeared Monday in court beside nationally known defense attorney Barry Scheck, an Innocence Project founder, and made a tightly scripted joint motion to overturn Erby's conviction. Joyce congratulated Scheck and his co-counsel, Vanessa Potkin.
Referring to the victims, Joyce said, "My heart goes out to them, but my job is to pursue justice, and in this case, having Mr. Erby serve time for rapes he didn't do isn't justice."
Joyce called on the Missouri Legislature to pass a law to help people exonerated of crimes in finding jobs and blending back into society. Currently, those people receive less help than someone who is on parole, she said.
Erby had been convicted of three attacks in 1985:
A 14-year-old girl, walking home from a market, was pulled into a garage and raped and sodomized on July 26. She bathed before calling police.
Another 14-year-old girl was raped in an alley as she took out the trash on Aug. 22.
A 16-year-old girl was raped in a vacant building.
Erby was tried but acquitted of an attempted rape of two teens on Sept. 30 that year.
Four days after the last attack, police responding to a report that a man was peeping into the window of a home arrested Erby. In a line-up later, all five victims of the four incidents identified Erby as the attacker, prosecutors said.
He had a previous conviction, having pleaded guilty to sexual abuse in 1982.
Erby requested DNA testing as early as 1988, when it first became available, Scheck said Monday. By 1995, he had contacted the Innocence Project, and it made its first request that year. Eventually, it filed a suit on behalf of Erby and six others.
The following year, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law enabling convicts to obtain DNA testing if they could show that they would not have been convicted if a favorable result had been available when they were tried. Illinois has a similar law.
Of the seven St. Louis area inmates who asked Missouri authorities to permit DNA testing with the help of the Innocence Project, Erby is the second to win his freedom. The first was Larry Johnson, who was exonerated in July 2002 after spending 16 years in prison for a rape in 1984. Testing in the cases of the other five men led to confirmations of their guilt.
In the courtroom Monday, Erby's sister, Evelyn Erby, said, "I feel there are many wrongfully convicted people incarcerated. However, this is America, and there is a process by which wrongfully convicted prisoners have an opportunity, if they're lucky, to gain their freedom."
Dawayne Erby, 27, the newly freed man's son, was unable to have his father attend his wedding in May. But he refused to dwell on the years his father lost, saying, "This is a beautiful day."