A schizophrenic who spent 22 years in prison for rape and was denied parole five times was cleared Monday after DNA evidence linked the crimes to another man.
A judge threw out Anthony Capozzi's two 1987 rape convictions at a hearing and Capozzi, 50, is expected to be freed later this week.
"There is a big load lifted off," said his lawyer, Thomas D'Agostino.
Capozzi was not in court for the hearing. He has been transferred to a psychiatric center while authorities arrange for his release.
"I truly regret that this had to happen," District Attorney Frank Clark said. "Everybody trying to do the right thing and going through all the right steps and coming out with the wrong result.
"I think a simple I'm sorry would never be enough," the prosecutor said.
D'Agostino has said he is prepared to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment to ensure Capozzi's future care.
Capozzi was found guilty of the rapes Feb. 6, 1987, and sentenced to 11 to 35 years.
He was denied parole five times since becoming eligible in 1997, because his refusal to admit the crimes made it impossible to complete a mandatory sex offender program, said another of his lawyers, Norman Effman.
Though his attorney, parents and other relatives have never doubted Capozzi's innocence, it was the recent arrest of a suspect in a 25-year string of rapes and murders that ultimately proved them right.
Altemio Sanchez, 49, was arrested Jan. 15 after DNA evidence identified him as a serial criminal known as the Bike Path Rapist. After linking Sanchez to three murders and several rapes in parks and other secluded areas dating to 1981, investigators began to question whether the 1983 and 1984 attacks for which Capozzi was convicted — which occurred in the same park as two of the rapes linked to Sanchez — might also have been committed by the Bike Path Rapist.
DNA evidence collected after the rapes proved the hunch correct, said Clark, who last week announced the DNA matched that of Sanchez.
"I'm just happy for the Capozzi family, really happy," Buffalo Police Detective Dennis Delano said on his way out of Monday's hearing. He was among investigators who became convinced of Capozzi's innocence.
The Capozzi family did not attend the hearing.
Capozzi physically resembled Sanchez at the time of the rapes and had been convicted largely because the victims identified him in two police lineups.
Clark said both victims have been told Capozzi was exonerated.
"That's very difficult for them, because I'm sure that they believed in their hearts and their souls that they were doing the right thing," he said, "and it didn't serve their interest to have somebody who wasn't guilty to serve the time, either."
"I feel sorry for them, too," Clark said. "In a very real sense they've been victimized twice."
Sanchez is charged with murdering two women in the early 1990s and one woman last fall. He has pleaded innocent. He is not charged in any of the rape cases because the five-year statute of limitations has expired. There is no time limit for filing murder charges.