LOS ANGELES -- Twenty years after he walked into prison -- convicted of a crime he didn’t commit -- Marco Contreras walked out of a courtroom Tuesday a free man, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Contreras, now 41 years old, spent two decades in jail for an attempted murder and robbery. On Tuesday, at a Los Angeles court hearing, he was declared factually innocent.
After Contreras walked free, his mother wrapped her arms around him and cried.
“I just had to be patient, and wait,” Contreras said, adding he always knew he would be exonerated.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who led Contreras’ defense team, said Contreras didn’t get out on a technicality.
“He got out because he’s actually innocent,” she said.
Contreras said his first wish as a free man is to have a good Mexican dinner and spend time with his family.
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 his assertion that he was home sleeping after working a graveyard shift as a security guard at a Bellflower hospital.
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.
“Newly discovered evidence suggests that a person other than Marco is guilty of the attempted murder of Jose Garcia,” Chief Deputy District Attorney John K. Spillane wrote in a letter to the judge.
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.