LOS ANGELES – A man whose attempted-murder conviction was tossed by a California judge walked free Tuesday after 20 years in prison.
Marco Contreras, now 41, was embraced by his mother as his lawyers cheered following a Los Angeles court hearing during which he was declared factually innocent.
"I just had to be patient, and wait," said Contreras, telling KCAL-TV he always knew he would be exonerated.
Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent, which fought for his release, pointed to a combination of factors that resulted in the conviction for a shooting and robbery at a Compton gas station in 1996.
Contreras' vehicle, which he had lent to someone else, was in the vicinity. An eyewitness wrongly identified him as the shooter, despite the fact that he was at home sleeping at the time.
A probe by the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office not only determined that Contreras was innocent, but led to the arrest of another suspect in the case.
The law school project and prosecutors jointly petitioned Superior Court Judge William Ryan to release him.
Contreras, who served two decades of a life-plus-seven-years sentence, said his spirituality helped him suppress anger during his time behind bars. He steadfastly maintained his innocence and fought to have his case re-investigated.
Paula Mitchell, Loyola's legal director, said before the hearing that erroneous eyewitness identifications account for about 75 percent of all wrongful convictions in the U.S.