After nearly 20 years, Kirk Bloodsworth said, he finds it hard to believe that the last chapter of his nightmare - the official part of it, at least - is finally over.
Since July 1984, when 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton's body was discovered in a wooded area of Rosedale, Bloodsworth's name has been linked to the chilling sexual assault and murder.
At first, it was linked because he was the suspect and later because he, in the eyes of the police and a jury, was the killer.
DNA evidence exonerated him in 1993 and he was released from prison. But he remained connected - by those who saw him as a victim of the justice system, by others who thought he had gotten away with murder.
Eventually, Bloodsworth, now 43, put his experience to use. In the late 1990s, he began to travel the country, talking about wrongful convictions and the power of DNA evidence. He lobbied for justice reform laws, protested the death penalty, told his story on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
He visited Capitol Hill regularly, and mixed with politicians. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has promoted legislation making DNA testing available to death row inmates, has called Bloodsworth a close friend.
But not until last August, when prosecutors checked DNA evidence from the crime against the state's database of convicted felons, did Bloodsworth's nightmare begin to clear.
That was when prosecutors connected an inmate named Kimberly Shay Ruffner to Dawn Hamilton's murder. That was when they apologized.
"I've got a new peace now that you can't buy anywhere," Bloodsworth said in an interview last fall.
On Wednesday, Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey visited Bloodsworth at his Eastern Shore home to let him know about that Ruffner was to plead guilty to murder in the child's death.
Yesterday, Bloodsworth released a statement through the Justice Project, an advocacy group for which he now works.
"I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering Dawn Hamilton's family has had to go through since July 25, 1984, the day of Dawn Hamilton's death," he wrote. "It is with a deep sense of relief for Dawn's family and for myself that the long ordeal in search of the truth about her tragic and horrible death, and in seeking justice, is coming to an end."
"As they have for over 20 years, Dawn and her family remain in my thoughts and prayers. I sincerely hope that today's event will help bring some closure to Dawn's family over her death."
He said he will continue to fight for criminal justice reforms.
The system, he said "was broke the day she died, and it is still broke today."