CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A man who was accused of molesting more than a dozen children in North Carolina has been set free after 14 years behind bars because the victims recanted.
James Bernard Parker (search) wept as he walked out of a Brooklyn, N.Y., courthouse on Monday and embraced a sister he hadn't seen in 15 years. He had been given three life terms plus 60 years in prison for charges of molesting four children.
"I've paid a price I shouldn't have had to pay," said Parker, 44. "I didn't do those crimes."
When Parker was charged in 1990, authorities said at least 19 children had been attacked in Monroe, where he lived. Police found no physical evidence, even though children told stories of being tied to trees and fed poisoned ice cream. They also gave a wide range of descriptions of their attacker.
After Parker was convicted in 1991, he wrote letters to several news organizations and legal groups maintaining his innocence and asking for help.
The Charlotte Observer ran stories in 2002 in which 15 reported victims and witnesses said the crimes never happened or that Parker wasn't the attacker. The only three boys who testified against Parker have since signed affidavits saying Parker didn't commit the crimes.
In May, Parker pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the sex crimes in exchange for the state's promise to free him. Immediately afterward, he denied committing the crimes.
"I never molested any children," he said. Pleading guilty was "the only way I could get out."
He was then extradited to New York to face unrelated 15-year-old robbery charges.
On Monday, the former day laborer completed a plea deal on the robbery charge and was freed on time served. He ate a belated Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, chicken, macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
"It's a great accomplishment that he's free," said Richard Rosen, a law professor and board member for the Center for Actual Innocence (search). "But I think the system didn't work for James Parker. It didn't work at time of trial. And frankly it didn't work at the end when he was pressured to plead guilty to a crime he didn't do."
James "Sonny" Rogers (search), the lead investigator on the case for the Monroe police, told The Observer that he still believes Parker molested children in Monroe, which is about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte.
"The victims and their families have to live with whatever's happened. I did my job," said Rogers, now a church pastor.
Parker's trial followed two of the nation's most sensational mass child-abuse cases — at the Little Rascals day care center in Edenton and the McMartin Preschool near Los Angeles. Convictions against child care workers in Edenton were overturned, and charges in the McMartin case were dropped after juries deadlocked on criminal charges.