Angel Gonzalez, Illinois Man Exonerated in 1994 Rape, Goes Free

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An Illinois man exonerated of an abduction and rape conviction that kept him locked up for 20 years was a free man Tuesday night after he was cleared of a separate property damage charge that had kept him locked up.

Angel Gonzalez, 41, had pleaded guilty to a property destruction charge stemming from when he destroyed the sink in his cell while he was in solitary confinement. That added more time to the sentence he was serving for the rape and abduction conviction that was thrown out Monday.

Gonzalez was released Tuesday night after the property charge was dismissed, Vanessa Potkin, a senior attorney with the Innocence Project, told NBC News.

Potkin said Gonzalez told her the first thing he wanted to do was "hug my mother and thank her for being there."

"It was very hard when you don't understand what is going on. She always believed in me," Potkin quoted Gonzalez as saying as he drove to his family's home.

Image: Angel Gonzalez
Angel Gonzalez poses in an undated photo before he was sentenced to prison. A judge threw out the conviction after DNA tests showed two other men were involved.Gonzalez family

Gonzalez's younger brother Saul said the wrongful conviction that took Gonzalez away hit him very hard because he the two often did things together.

"The family is so excited. Everyone is so excited. Everything is moving so fast. We haven't had time to think about this," Saul, 34, said in a telephone interview.

He said his mother, Maria, quickly started handing out tasks to everyone. "Go pick up this and go pick up fried chicken and fix this," Saul said, describing her orders.

Gonzalez also has two sisters, and Saul said he would be introducing his children, ages 11 and 5, to their uncle for the first time. "All the kids are decorating with balloons," said Saul, who visited his brother one to three times a month during his time in prison when he was old enough to do so.

Gonzalez was jailed for a 1994 rape and abduction of a woman who had identified him as her attacker. But DNA testing returned profiles belonging to two other men and did not connect Gonzalez to the crime.

The Innocence Project found other problems with the investigation and with Gonzalez's conviction, which forced a re-examination of his case and brought about the new DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene.

In addition, Immigration and Customs Enforcement canceled what is known as a detainer, which would have required that he be turned over to ICE custody after he finished serving his sentence. The detainer was placed on Gonzalez on Aug. 20, 1995.

"Since Mr. Gonzalez has been exonerated on all charges, ICE is exercising prosecutorial discretion and has canceled his detaineer," said Gail Montenegro, an ICE spokeswoman.

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The Gonzalezes are originally from Mexico. An ICE spokeswoman referred questions about Angel Gonzalez's future immigration status to Citizenship and Immigration Services, which was considering the question late Tuesday.

Although wrongly imprisoned, Gonzalez used his time in prison to educate himself and learn skills. He is an artist and mentored other younger prisoners and helped those who spoke Spanish.

"He was always studying in school and teaching other inmates," Saul said.

Saul remembered that about five years before Gonzalez's arrest, his brother also was teaching him. His fondest memory has been of the two swimming in Mexico and riding a bike, he said.

"He showed me how to swim and he taught me how to ride a bike," Saul said.

But Saul said his brother is now ready to learn from him. "I told him I drive a truck. He said, 'You are going to show me now.'"

Video interview by Telemundo correspondent Janet Rodríguez and photographer Cesar González

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