A North Carolina man convicted of murdering a prostitute will be set free after judges reviewing his case ruled Wednesday that the courts made a mistake sending him to prison more than 16 years ago.

The ruling is the first win for North Carolina's innocence commission — the only state-level panel of its kind in the nation. Family and supporters broke into cheers when the decision was announced.

Greg Taylor's groundbreaking exoneration came after six days of hearings that questioned how state experts used evidence to convict him in 1993 of murdering prostitute Jacquetta Thomas.

Taylor, 47, always insisted he did not kill Thomas, although he testified was in the area doing drugs with a friend and spotted what they thought was a body but didn't report it to police.

"Gregory F. Taylor is innocent of the charge of first-degree murder," Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said.

Defense attorneys worked to cast doubt about the initial case built against Taylor, and a State Bureau of Investigation agent testified that complete blood test results were excluded from lab reports presented at trial.

The agent's notes indicated that samples from Taylor's SUV tested positive for blood in preliminary tests but were negative in follow-up testing, which wasn't disclosed during the prosecution.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, whose office led the charge to keep Taylor behind bars, immediately walked over to Taylor after the Wednesday's verdict.

"I told him I'm very sorry he was convicted," Willoughby said later. "I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991."

A witness who testified in the 1993 murder trial, however, stuck by his testimony earlier this week that Greg Taylor confessed to a role in the killing while the two men were being held at the Wake County Jail.

North Carolina lawmakers established the innocence commission in 2006 after a series of exonerations shamed the state's justice system.

Of the hundreds of cases reviewed by the innocence agency, only three have made it to a hearing before the body's commissioners. Only one other has gone to a three-judge panel, and that was rejected.