DALLAS A Texas man who spent more than 15 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of kidnapping and robbery raised both arms skyward and collapsed in his mother's embrace Thursday after being told he was a free man.
Patrick Waller's sobs were the only sound at a crowded hearing attended by four other inmates also exonerated by DNA testing.
"It's all right, honey," Patricia Cunningham told her son. "It's over. You're out of here. You're going home."
Waller had been behind bars since 1992 for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping stemming from the abduction of a Dallas couple. He was proved innocent by DNA testing late last year.
"I feel vindicated," said Waller, 38. "I feel thankful. Most of all, I feel blessed."
His release had been all but certain since last week, when the Dallas County prosecutor's office announced that DNA evidence had cleared Waller and matched the profile of another man.
That suspect identified his accomplice, and both men subsequently confessed in front of a grand jury, prosecutors said. Neither man is in prison, although one is on parole, and they won't face criminal charges because the statute of limitations has expired.
Waller is the 19th man in Dallas County since 2001 shown by DNA evidence to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. That's more than any county in the nation, according to The Innocence Project in New York, a legal center specializing in wrongful-conviction cases.
Four former inmates who collectively served nearly 100 years in prison before being exonerated lined the back wall of the crowded courtroom. The men freed by DNA testing in Dallas County have made a habit of showing up in court for exoneration hearings, and on Thursday they presented Waller with a prepaid cell phone as a gift.
Their exoneration stories helped Waller during his incarceration.
"All these guys I just met, I have all their clippings," Waller said. "It always gave me hope that one day it would be my turn."
Waller said he plans to ask the other exonorees about the challenges of rejoining society. He is also about 20 credit hours short of a degree.
John Stickels, an Innocence Project of Texas board member and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he wants to help Waller enroll at the suburban Dallas school.
Waller's ordeal began in 1992 when two men kidnapped a couple and stole several hundred dollars. The men also sexually assaulted the woman after tying up the man, District Attorney Mike Ware said.
Another couple who drove up to the scene were also held at gunpoint. A security guard arrived and scared off the men, who fled in separate cars.
Three of the four people abducted picked Waller in a photo lineup. The fourth later picked him out of a live lineup, Ware said.
Waller maintained his innocence and presented an alibi at trial but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He also pleaded guilty to two charges of aggravated kidnapping, fearing more life sentences if he were convicted, said his lawyer, Gary Udashen.
In 2001, Waller requested post-conviction DNA testing under a new state law. The DA's office, then under different leadership, opposed the request, and it was denied by a judge. A second attempt in 2005 was also unsuccessful.
Bill Hill, who was the district attorney when Waller requested his DNA tests, did not return a message from The Associated Press.
Waller's 2007 request, which came after Craig Watkins had taken office as the new district attorney, was granted. Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, review old cases in which inmates have requested DNA testing.
In Waller's case, DNA testing was paid for by the Innocence Project of Texas.