ATLANTA – A judge Thursday freed an inmate whose claims of innocence in a kidnapping and rape went unheeded for nearly a quarter of a century, until DNA evidence proved him right.
At the end of the 15-minute hearing where Robert Clark was finally granted his freedom, his attorney Peter Neufeld patted him on the back and said, "You're free to go, fella."
A smiling Clark hugged and kissed family members, repeatedly saying, "I told you. I told you."
Clark's mother died and his children grew up and had families of their own while he sat in prison for a 1981 attack on an Atlanta woman. His lawyers said DNA from another man matches not only that rape, but two others that were committed later.
"This is a truly horrific case," said Vanessa Potkin, an attorney for the Innocence Project, a legal clinic co-directed by Neufeld. "While Robert Clark was wrongfully convicted, it appears the true perpetrator of this crime was out there harming women and children."
Clark, 45, was convicted and sentenced to life plus 20 years after a woman identified him as the man who carjacked her at gunpoint from outside an Atlanta Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and raped her repeatedly.
But recent DNA tests showed that Clark — who had no prior adult felony convictions — did not commit the crime.
Tests against state and federal DNA databases of convicts matched samples from the rape to Clark's friend Floyd Antonio "Tony" Arnold. Cobb County prosecutors, who originally convicted Clark, are looking into whether to seek charges against Arnold, spokeswoman Kathy Watkins said.
Arnold had convictions for sodomy and illegal gun possession when the rape took place. He is in prison for cruelty to children and is scheduled to be released Jan. 31.
A search by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that tests of Arnold's DNA in 2003 matched him to two other unsolved Atlanta area rape cases from 1993 and 1996, Potkin said. Arnold has not been charged with either crime.
A spokeswoman for the DeKalb County district attorney said that office was notified two weeks ago about the potential matches and is investigating Arnold, with charges in the 1996 case possible in the next few weeks.
A spokesman for the district attorney in Atlanta, where the 1993 rape occurred, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Clark became the 164th person in the nation and the fifth in Georgia to be freed through post-conviction DNA testing, according to Potkin.
Neufeld said an Atlanta law firm has volunteered to look into financial compensation for Clark. Earlier this year, the Georgia Legislature approved $1 million for Clarence Harrison, who spent nearly 18 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of rape.
Clark's son, Rodrickus, said he and other family members looked forward to celebrating his father's freedom.
"He always told me he was innocent. I believed in what he said," he said. "We can't make up for lost time. I guess we've just got to go on. We want to go fishing together, take a nice fishing trip."
Clark said he is not sure what his long-term plans are, but he is looking forward to his first family Christmas in years.
"I won't be able to give them any gifts or anything, but I don't think they're worried about that," he said. "They just want to have me home."