After more than 19 years in prison for a murder prosecutors now agree he didn't commit, Steve Barnes has rejoined his family just in time for Thanksgiving.
Barnes walked out of Oneida County Court a free man Tuesday after a judge ruled that advanced DNA testing cleared him of raping and killing 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in 1985.
"I'm overwhelmed. This is the happiest day of my life," said Barnes, now 42. "I've been waiting for this day for 20 years. I never gave up hope. I knew this day would eventually come."
Barnes said he was looking forward to a holiday meal with his family and "to saying grace and carving the turkey."
Sylvia Bouchard said she learned her son had been cleared when defense attorney Alba Morales called Friday and told her to set another place for Thanksgiving dinner. She said she went out and bought a bigger turkey.
"When you have a loved one in prison ... there are no special days, no holidays. You go through the motions but you don't really celebrate," Bouchard said.
"I knew from day one he was innocent," she said. "Now everybody knows my son is innocent."
Death of Simon
Simon's nude and bruised body was discovered along the Mohawk River in Whitestown in September 1985. More than two years would pass before Barnes was charged with raping and killing Simon, an acquaintance who was a few years behind him at Whitesboro High School.
Tried in 1989, Barnes was convicted of rape, sodomy, depraved indifference murder and two counts of murder related to the underlying sexual crimes.
Witnesses claimed they saw Barnes with Simon near the crime scene. Police said they found an imprint of Simon's jeans on dirt covering Barnes' truck. And a jail inmate testified that Barnes had discussed the girl's death.
Although DNA from semen was recovered, the samples were too small to provide conclusive evidence, prosecutors said. DNA testing technology was only a few years old in the 1980s and quite limited.
The Innocence Project — a national organization that takes up cases of wrongful conviction — took up Barnes' case in 1996 and twice persuaded authorities to re-examine the DNA evidence. The first results were inconclusive, but the latest tests used a procedure more advanced in dealing with deteriorated or limited genetic material.
"If this technology had existed in 1985, Steve Barnes would never have even been arrested," said District Attorney Scott McNamara. He said the new tests "definitively excluded" Barnes as a suspect and made his case "totally unprosecutable."
Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project, said Barnes was sent to prison on circumstantial evidence, not because of any misconduct or negligence by police and prosecutors.
Despite a warning from Judge Michael Dwyer, the standing-room-only crowd burst into applause and shouts of joy as Barnes was freed. Friends and family surrounded him, offering hugs and handshakes.
'Return the favor'
Authorities have renewed their investigation into Simon's death, McNamara said. Although authorities do not have suspects, he said investigators have begun comparing the DNA findings with national databases.
McNamara said the Simon family was devastated when he told them about Barnes' exoneration.
"I feel bad for the Simon family," Barnes said. "I hope the real perpetrator is caught someday."
Barnes said he is looking forward to learning how to use the Internet and a cell phone, technologies in their infancy when he was sent to prison. He also said he planned to work with the Innocence Project "to return the favor back."
Barnes said he was not angry at anyone for 20 years of lost freedom.
"They say life begins at 40," Barnes said, drawing cheers from crowd of family and friends who pressed around him.
Barnes said he had not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit over his wrongful imprisonment.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit group founded in 1992 to exonerate innocent prisoners, has helped free more than 200 people.