After serving 22 years of a life sentence for a rape and murder he says he didn't commit, James A. Thompson Jr. was granted a new trial Thursday based on new DNA evidence.
He immediately entered a new plea and — per an agreement between sides — received a new sentence that amounted to time served. He's a free man.
It was a joyous moment for his relatives, who sat in the back corner of the Baltimore courtroom, quietly watching. And it was yet another disappointment for the victim's family, who already endured a similar release of Thompson's only co-defendant in 2008.
Thompson "gave information that only a participant in the [crime] would know," Assistant State's Attorney Sharon Holback emphasized to the court. "He is in no way exonerated."
The unusual outcome in a case in which a woman was senselessly murdered leaves questions unanswered. Either an innocent man lost decades of his life to prison, or a killer was released from a significant sentence because too much time had passed to effectively try him again.
Thompson's family politely declined to comment, and the victim's family was ushered away by Holback.
Thompson, now 51, says he's innocent of the Aug. 2, 1987, rape and murder of Colleen Williar, who was then a 24-year-old phone company employee. She had spent the night dancing before returning home in the early morning to her Baltimore rowhouse, where police said she was raped, stabbed and strangled.
A day later, Thompson said he found the knife used to stab the young woman and turned it over to police, along with some bloodstained cut-offs he said he was wearing when he discovered the weapon. He implicated James Owens in the crime and became a key witness against him.
But Thompson's story changed several times, until he, too, was a suspect.
Thompson's final version of events went like this: He and Owens broke into Williar's house. She came home. Thompson hid in a bathroom. Owens assaulted and raped the young woman while Thompson masturbated.
But police said they found hair on Williar's back that matched Thompson, a scientifically dubious claim, and he was convicted of rape, murder and burglary. Owens was convicted of burglary and murder, but acquitted of the rape.
The DNA evidence, discovered a few years ago, cleared both Thompson and Owens of the rape, however. It also contradicted other claims made during the original trials, including that the blood on Thompson's shorts belonged to the victim. It did not.
Owens eventually won a new trial based on the information, and the charges against him were dropped in 2008. By then, most of the evidence had been destroyed and many of the original witnesses were dead.
But Thompson chose to enter an "Alford plea" to second-degree murder Thursday, rather than take his chances on another jury or hope that the state would drop his case. Such a plea acknowledges that there is sufficient evidence to convict him.
"It was a tough choice he had to make to ensure he would regain his liberty," said Stephen Mercer, who had represented Owens during his new trial and Thompson on Thursday. "He would have obviously preferred to demonstrate how the DNA evidence showed his actual innocence."
The other charges, including the rape, were dropped. And as agreed, Baltimore Circuit Judge George L. Russell III sentenced Thompson to 30 years in prison, suspending all of the term except the years already served.
Russell also ordered two years of supervised probation for Thompson and issued a loud warning to the hard-of-hearing defendant.
"You're going [back] to prison if you violate your probation," Russell said.