Two North Carolina men walked free Thursday when a panel of judges ruled they didn't kill a man during a home invasion despite their guilty pleas a decade earlier.
Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson said they felt pressure to plead guilty to second-degree murder for the shooting of Walter Bowman so they wouldn't have to face the death penalty or life in prison. A later confession by a prisoner led to DNA testing that excluded five men, including Kagonyera and Wilcoxson, who served time for the crime.
"It's been a long time," said the 32-year-old Wilcoxson, who embraced his daughter and father as he walked out of a county lockup after 11 years behind bars.
The case was heard by the judges after intervention by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission -- the country's only state agency dedicated to investigating claims of innocence.
"This is a moment we've been waiting for 11 years," said Wilcoxson's mother, Rhonden Finch. "He hasn't been able to sit down and eat breakfast with his daughter. So much has changed in 11 years. So much has changed. He's missed birthdays, graduations. This is a time to celebrate."
The judges announced their decision in Asheville following over a week of testimony.
"It was a blessing. I'm very grateful," said Kagonyera, 31, as he left the lockup walking arm-in-arm with his mother and grandmother.
The release comes a day after Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, despite his insistence that he was innocent of killing a policeman in 1989. Prosecutors stood by his guilt and several courts upheld his conviction.
"I think it's interesting that this exoneration comes the day after the Troy Davis execution in Georgia," said Mary Pollard, director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. "We're lucky to live in a state that, like any human system, admits we're not perfect here and we provide avenues for folks to get relief if they were wrongly convicted."
Bowman was killed when several gunmen wearing bandanas over their faces stormed into his house. Three other people were in the home during the botched robbery and during the chaos, someone fired a shot that killed Bowman. The robbers fled.
Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were among six men charged. Five pleaded guilty to various charges related to Bowman's death and the case was dropped against the sixth man. The other three men served time and were released before Kagonyera and Wilcoxson.
Although Wilcoxson had no prior criminal record, Kagonyera had faced charges in the past including assault with a deadly weapon. But the arrests turned out to be cases of mistaken identity, as a man who later confessed to the crime had not been among those convicted of it.
Kagonyera testified to the panel that he felt pressured by his attorney and family members to accept a plea bargain in order to avoid a possible death sentence. Wilcoxson feared a life sentence that would prevent him from ever seeing his daughter again.
In 2003, federal prisoner Robert Rutherford confessed to the crime and named two different people who were part of the home invasion. DNA was found on the bandanna of one of the people Rutherford named as a suspect, but that evidence excluded any of the five men who had been convicted in connection with the murder and home invasion.
Wilcoxson's father, Robert Wilcoxson-Bey, said he never doubted his son was innocent.
"Justice is always good when it comes right," he said.
Asked what he would do on his first night of freedom, Wilcoxson said, "Pray."
He then walked away with his attorney without answering any other questions. His family said they would gather somewhere and celebrate the decision.
"I'm just so happy. I gave it to God and put it in his hands," said Charlene Holmes, Kagonyera's mother, who cried when the verdict was read. "I can't wait for him to come home."
Dea Johnson, Wilcoxson's ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter, said her daughter, Taneea, could now see her father as a free man for the first time.
"I just want him to see his baby," she said. "This is his pride and joy. This is what he fought for."
The innocence commission has heard three other cases, one of which resulted in the release of a man who served almost 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. A three-judge panel found Greg Taylor innocent in February 2010.
Messages left with the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office were not immediately returned Thursday. No one responded to knocks at the door of the office in the county courthouse.
"I'm just so excited. My son is coming home. It's just overwhelming," Wilcoxson-Bey said. "It's been a long, long road. He claimed he was innocent from the beginning, but nobody believed him. Nobody but his family."