Tyrone Jones walked out into the hazy sunshine Tuesday morning and let out a deep breath on the steps of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse, his shoulders light for the first time in a dozen years.
He had come to court prepared for trial on charges of conspiring to commit murder, only to be told he wouldn't be prosecuted. The case was dropped.
"It took all but 10 seconds to undo something that's been going on for 12 years," Jones said, still shocked.
He threw an arm around public defender, Michele Nethercott, who began representing him several years ago as part of Maryland's Innocence Project, which works to identify wrongful convictions and get them overturned.
In January, a judge did just that, tossing out the 1999 conviction that sent Jones to prison for life and setting a new trial for Tuesday. Then it was over. Just like that.
"I cannot stop smiling," Jones said.
Jones, now 33, grew up in East Baltimore. He was arrested for drugs when he was 20 but never prosecuted.
But he pushed beyond that kind of life. He played football at Dunbar High School and used that to get his foot in the door at a Texas community college, where he studied computer science networking administration.
He was home for the summer in late June 1998, his clothes packed for his impending return to college, when 15-year-old Tyree Wright was shot and killed. The death of the teen, a good student and track star at Patterson Park High Schoool, rocked his community.
Someone quickly identified Jones, who'd been standing with a group of people, as being involved, and he was arrested. Then police found gunshot residue on his hands.
He was charged and tried; a jury acquitted him of murder but found him guilty of conspiracy.
"This is an extremely vexatious case," Circuit Judge John Prevas said at the time. "This is only one of about four in my career that I have said to the defendant, 'You know a jury of your peers has convicted you, and I have to sentence you as though you did it. But if you can come forward with any evidence that demonstrates that you did not do it, I will be more than happy to set you free.'"
He then sentenced Jones to the maximum allowed: life in prison.
Jones traded Central Texas College for a maximum-security lockup, where he languished for years, working prison jobs and trying to stay out of trouble.
Then he and the Innocence Project connected.
Nethercott said Jones' case had "all of the ingredients" she looks for in a wrongful conviction, counting out the points.
One, she said, was flawed eyewitness testimony. A witness first told police he had not seen any suspects, then later identified Jones from a photo array.
Second came flawed testimony about the merits of a forensic test. The presence of gunshot residue often means little. Other chemicals are often mistaken for it, and it travels, easily contaminating other people and things.
And third was undisclosed exculpatory evidence. A police report with the witness' original account was never turned over to the defense, nor shown to the jury.
Attempts to free Jones on residue arguments failed, as did a motion questioning DNA evidence. But Judge Gale E. Rasin overturned the conspiracy conviction earlier this year based on the discovery of the police report. She granted Jones a new trial and set it for Tuesday.
He came to court Tuesday with Nethercott, expecting to be assigned a trial room. But Assistant State's Attorney Don Giblin, after consulting with the victim's family, chose to drop the case instead. He conceded later that it was too difficult to proceed.
"We're not saying he didn't do it," Giblin said in a brief interview afterward. "We're just saying it's impossible to retry."
Attempts to reach Wright's mother and siblings were unsuccessful.
And Jones says he's not guilty. But, he served nearly 11 years — longer than many others convicted of the same crime.
He has been out on $50,000 bail since January and has already got a job working maintenance at an apartment complex. He plans to enroll in college in the fall, he said, focusing on counseling as a major, instead of computers. And he's adjusting to today's faster pace and the fancier cell phones.
He credits his consistently supportive relatives, along with Nethercott, for keeping him going through some of the "devastating" legal losses and the daily hell of prison. And now he's daydreaming about starting a family of his own.
But normal life won't be easy, Nethercott said.
Since 2002, the Innocence Project has won 11 new trials. Many of their clients released after long periods in prison seem to have a hard time adjusting to community life, Nethercott said. They fear confined spaces, like movie theaters, or inappropriately fall back on prison survival skills.
Some commit new crimes, and "virtually all," she said, "struggle with the psychological effects of the whole experience."
Still, Nethercott says she is "very hopeful for Tyrone." He's determined, he's bright, and he's got that solid family support, she said.
"It looks pretty good to me," she said.