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After 17 Years, Man Convicted of Rape, Murder Freed by DNA Test

A man who spent more than 17 years in prison for the murder of an elderly woman he says he did not commit walked out of a Michigan courtroom Monday a free man. Prosecutors dropped all charges in the face of new DNA evidence pointing to another culprit.

Jamie Lee Peterson was sentenced to life in prison after his conviction of the 1996 rape and murder of 68-year-old Geraldine Montgomery, a retired schoolteacher. As reported by NBC News in December 2013, the brutal crime shook the small town of Kalkaska, Michigan.

Peterson, who had a history of mental illness, confessed to the crime after hours of interrogation, but then quickly recanted. DNA evidence at the time did not implicate him, nor did it entirely rule him out. He was tried and convicted of the murder.

But Peterson’s supporters had long argued police had the wrong man.

Read Previous Story: DNA Test May Bring New Trial for Man Serving Life for Murder, Rape

"It's a great relief," said David Moran, director of the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic, which partnered with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions to represent Peterson. "It is inconceivable that Jamie could have done this crime without leaving any evidence. All the evidence points to one man. We now know who that is."

A judge last month ordered a new trial for Peterson based in part on DNA evidence tested last year that implicated another man, Jason Ryan, in the murder. Ryan now awaits trial. No DNA found at the scene matched Peterson.

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On Sept. 5, Kalkaska County Prosecutor Mike Perreault filed documents to drop charges against Peterson. Perreault declined NBC News’ request for comment.