A Chicago man who spent nearly two decades behind bars for murder over a deadly 2003 shooting has been released years after his identical twin confessed to the crime.
An emotional Kevin Dugar broke down into tears as he was released from the Cook County jail on Tuesday night and reunited with his loved ones as a free man, his lawyer Ronald Safer told NBC News on Friday.
"The judge granted his release pending trial on a signature bond and he walked out into the open air and breathed his first breaths as a free man in almost 20 years," Safer said. "It was gratifying to watch his tears roll down his cheeks and their cheeks before (their tears) froze on their faces because it was about 7 below."
Dugar had spent nearly 20 years in jail after he was convicted in the deadly 2003 shooting of a rival gang member.
A gunman had opened fire on three people in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood in the March 2003 incident, killing Antwan Carter and wounding Ronnie Bolden, according to NBC Chicago.
Dugar was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 54 years in prison. For years, he maintained his innocence.
Still, his fate appeared to be sealed until what Safer described as a "stranger than fiction" plot twist that saw Dugar's twin brother, Karl Smith, admit to having carried out the murder in a confession that was first made in a letter to Dugar in 2013, nearly a decade after he was convicted.
Initially, the admission had little impact on Dugar’s case, with a judge ruling in 2018 that Smith’s confession was not credible and declining to offer his twin a new trial, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Smith had been denied an appeal himself as he was serving out a 99-year sentence for a home invasion that saw a child shot in the head. Prosecutors questioned the motives behind his confession, telling the judge that he only came forward after a court upheld his own conviction for attempted murder, the Chicago Tribune had reported at the time.
A lawyer with the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took Dugar's case back to court, however. And now, after Tuesday's ruling, he will have a second chance to prove his innocence.
Safer said he hoped the case, which he described as a "made-for-TV" tale, would not have to go to court again.
"We are hopeful that the (Cook County) state’s attorney will drop the case against Kevin and then do what they will, but drop the case against Kevin because he’s innocent," he said. "It’s clear that he’s innocent, but if they persist we will go to trial and we will vindicate him at trial."
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Safer said Dugar was spending his time as a free man with his loved ones as he grapples with the reality of the time lost.
"You know, you would think it’s just unmitigated joy, but the adjustment, the wounds that are inflicted by wrongful incarceration, are deep and enduring and there is an adjustment period that lasts a lifetime but particularly in the early days are very very challenging," Safer said.
"So, (he is) relishing his freedom, but it is a difficult adjustment," he said.