MIAMI – A man who spent 26 years behind bars as Florida's "Bird Road Rapist" was released from prison Wednesday after DNA evidence cleared him in two of the attacks and cast doubt on whether he was responsible for any of the crimes.
"Victory," 67-year-old Luis Diaz (search) said as he walked out of the courthouse a free man. He said he planned to spend time with his family, was not bitter about the time he lost and didn't blame prosecutors.
"They did their job. You have to respect that," he said later at a news conference. Payment for his years in prison also wasn't on his or his family's mind — for now.
"He is our compensation right now," said son Jose Diaz, 40, who was flanked by his brother and sister.
Circuit Judge Cristina Pereya-Shuminer (search) threw out his five rape convictions at the request of both Miami-Dade County's chief prosecutor and lawyers for the Innocence Project (search), a nonprofit organization that works to get inmates exonerated via DNA.
About 30 relatives and friends in the courtroom stood and applauded after the judge said he was free to go. A handcuffed Diaz, dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, waved to his family and wiped his eyes with tissues.
Prosecutors stopped short of declaring Diaz innocent in all the rapes, instead citing the difficulty of retrying him after a quarter-century.
"It is impossible to ignore the difficulties inherent in retrying five very old cases even under the best of circumstances. Police investigators retire, memories fade, and victims move on with their lives," the dismissal request said.
Diaz was convicted in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison for seven of 25 sexual assaults that occurred between 1977 and 1979 in the Bird Road area of Coral Gables, south of downtown Miami.
The Bird Road Rapist would attack young women drivers, signaling them to pull over by flashing his headlights and then forcing them to have sex at gunpoint.
Diaz was arrested after a victim who worked as a gas station attendant spotted a driver she said looked like her attacker. She gave police the license plate number, which led them to Diaz.
The convictions were based on identifications made by eight victims in all, even though some of them initially described a much heavier and taller Hispanic who spoke English. Diaz, a Cuban-American, spoke little English and, because of his work as a fry cook, smelled of onions — something no victim mentioned.
In 1993, two victims recanted their identification of Diaz, and those two convictions were thrown out. But five other convictions remained, until lawyers asked for DNA testing.
Evidence gathered from the two of the rape victims was discovered, and DNA testing of the semen conclusively excluded Diaz as the attacker in both cases. That, in turn, cast doubt on his other convictions.
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was the county prosecutor when Diaz was convicted, did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
Defense attorney Roy Black, who represented Diaz at his trial, said he was thrilled.
"That Luis' innocence has finally been admitted is cause for celebration, but nothing can erase the 26 years he spent in prison, in horrible condition, separated from his family," Black said in statement.
Barry Scheck, executive director of the Innocence Project, said the Diaz case demonstrates anew the need for police to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.
He said three-quarters of the 160 prisoners who have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA in the United States had been convicted based on mistaken identification.
"This should be a landmark case in the history of eyewitness reform," Scheck said. "There are reforms police and prosecutors are using across the country that reduce error, protect the innocent and help apprehend the guilty."