ST. LOUIS -- Lonnie Erby stood at the top of the courthouse steps Monday, stretched out his arms and broke into a wide smile.
"Yeah! Yeah!," he said enjoying the moment, then pointed downtown to the landmark in the distance. "There's the Arch. I've been waiting to see it."
Erby served 17 years in prison for three rape convictions before being freed Monday after DNA tests proved he didn't commit the crimes.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Jimmie Edwards apologized directly to Erby during a court hearing. As he said "This court finds Lonnie Erby is innocent ..." Erby's family and friends broke into applause and cheered.
Edwards said that the science of criminal investigation has improved since the 1986 conviction, when genetic tests like the ones that freed Erby were not available.
"Final justice has indeed been done today," Edwards said.
The apology was what Erby, 49, longed to hear. "That's the one thing I was waiting for," he said.
Erby first hugged his son Dawayne Erby, 27, whom he had seen just once since his incarceration. "I survived in there for him," the father said.
Erby described a lonely time in prison, saying he felt isolated knowing he hadn't committed the crimes. Other inmates, he said, dismissed his claims of innocence.
"Remember me?" asked a woman as she hugged him. "God is good, isn't he, Lonnie?" said another.
Erby, his family and friends headed off to celebrate at Imo's Pizza, a St. Louis institution.
Erby was arrested after a 13-year-old girl reported a man was looking in her window. He was convicted in 1986 of sexual attacks on three girls, with charges ranging from rape with a dangerous instrument to forcible sodomy, and sentenced to 115 years. He had been jailed at the Moberly Correctional Center.
Officials with the New York-based Innocence Project had long sought DNA testing to determine if Erby was innocent. DNA testing was not yet available when Erby was initially convicted.
Erby was the second inmate convicted of a St. Louis rape in about a year to be freed after DNA testing sought by the Innocence Project, which is headed by Barry Scheck, who gained fame as part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.
In July 2002, Larry Johnson was released after spending 18 years in prison for the 1984 rape of a St. Louis University student.
Scheck said the DNA evidence had been entered into a national databank. He believes that, even 18 years later, it can help find the real rapist. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said the cases will be re-opened for investigation.
Aliza Kaplan, deputy director of the Innocence Project, said Erby wrote to the organization and work on his case began in 1995. On April 18, 2002, a court approved DNA testing, where a blood sample from Erby was compared to the original biological evidence to see if he was or was not a genetic match.
That decision was appealed by Missouri, but the appeal was rejected.
Joyce had been outspoken about traumatizing crime victims by retesting in several cases, including Erby's situation.
"In fact, she fought us on accessing his evidence," Kaplan said.
But Joyce said Monday she and the Innocence Project both are supporting programs to help the wrongly-incarcerated adjust to life outside of prison. She also wants to see legislation that financially compensates the wrongfully accused. "I'm always happy to partner with anyone interested in seeing that justice was done," said Joyce.
The Innocence Project won court orders requiring new DNA tests for several convicted rapists in St. Louis. Testing has confirmed the guilt of some other inmates.
A Missouri law, effective August 2001, lets convicted rapists seek new DNA tests if the technology wasn't available at the time of their trial.
Nationally, more than 300 men and women have been exonerated of crimes and released from prison as the result of DNA testing, the Innocence Project said.
Joyce's office has thus far reviewed about 350 of 1,400 old cases of rape, murder and assault to pinpoint where new DNA tests might be warranted.
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