ELIZABETH, N.J. – All charges against a man who served 22 years in prison for the murder and rape of two children were dropped on Monday after prosecutors cited new DNA testing they said links another man to the crime.
In a statement released before a court hearing Monday, Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said he decided not to pursue the charges following "careful re-evaluation of the case" against Byron Halsey.
Halsey, 46, was released from prison on May 15 after a judge threw out his convictions. New DNA testing, not available when he was convicted, linked a neighbor to the crime.
However, until Monday, Halsey could have been retried on charges of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated manslaughter, felony murder, child abuse and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.
Instead, on prosecutors' recommendation, Superior Court Judge Stuart L. Peim dropped all charges in a hearing that lasted about two minutes.
Halsey, dressed in a gray suit and flanked between his lawyers, stood up and asked the judge, "Can I have your autograph please?"
Outside the courtroom, Halsey thanked prosecutors for "acknowledging the truth." He also thanked his grandmother, standing behind him in a crowd of supporters, and God.
"I want to thank my Lord savior for carrying me through the years," he said.
Halsey said he is trying absorb his new freedom, which began Monday with the removal of an electronic ankle braclet that monitored his whereabouts.
Though he said he is still angry, he doesn't have immediate plans to sue the state.
Halsey was convicted in 1988 of murdering and sexually assaulting Tyrone and Tina Urquhart, the children of his girlfriend, with whom he lived at a Plainfield rooming house.
The bodies of Tyrone, 8, and Tina, 7, were found in the home's basement in November 1985.
The new DNA test showed that a neighbor in the rooming house, Clifton Hall, was the source of semen recovered at the scene and may have been responsible for the crimes, said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and is representing Halsey.
Halsey had made a confession before trial, but Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck said the statement followed 30 hours of interrogation over a 40-hour period.
"As a result, the only evidence against Byron Halsey is his uncorroborated confession, significant portions of which have been refuted by DNA evidence," said prosecutor Albert Cernadas Jr.
When asked if he thought Halsey was innocent, Cernadas said he couldn't "answer with certainty," saying only that the state could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Halsey was guilty.
"We just didn't have sufficient evidence," Cernadas said.
Cernadas said the prosecutor's office took months to review the case, interviewing a dozen witnesses and submitting items that hadn't been examined before for DNA testing. He said the case likely would have been different with DNA testing.
"It's hard to say with the passage of 22 years what would have occurred," he said.
Halsey is the 205th person nationwide exonerated and the fifth in New Jersey through DNA evidence, Ferrero said.
For the last month and a half, he has been trying to piece his life back together without knowing if he would still face charges. He moved to Newark and found a job with a sign company, established himself with a church and met with social workers to help him adjust to his new life since the dramatic day in May when he walked out of prison.
Since May, Halsey said he's enjoyed better food than prison — even gaining 20 pounds — taking baths and catching up with his family.
"I'm going to church, going to work, pay my bills," he said, proudly handing out his business cards to reporters.
What's the biggest change since he went into prison in 1985? "Cell phone, man," he said.
Scheck said the next step would likely be applying for compensation and filing a civil lawsuit. Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, said he could be compensated $20,000 per year of imprisonment.
Hall, 49, has now been charged with two counts of murder and one count of aggravated sexual assault, authorities said. He is being held at a prison for sex offenders because of three sex crimes convictions in the 1990s.
Cernadas said prosecutors will present the evidence against him to a grand jury. But if Hall is indicted, Cernadas said the state won't pursue a capital case against him.