PHILADELPHIA — Eric Riddick spent nearly 30 years behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit. But on Friday, he walked free.
“I feel great, I feel great,” Riddick, 51, said as he left a Philadelphia courthouse.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child. I guess it takes a village to raise justice, too,” he went on to say, adding that the rush of emotions was “overwhelming.”
In recent years, his case attracted greater national attention and several key people advocated for his release, including a prominent hip-hop artist and a sympathetic city councilman.
In the summer of 1992, Riddick was convicted of murdering his childhood friend William Catlett based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, and was sentenced to life in prison.
His case was first brought to the attention of NBC News by the rapper and activist Meek Mill, who says he met Riddick when he was sent to the same prison for probation violations.
Riddick's mother, Christine, has fought for her son for years, knocking on doors at City Hall and fiercely advocating for his release since virtually the day he was convicted.
Her protests and persistence got the attention of Philadelphia Councilman David Oh, who became deeply involved in the fight to free Riddick and eventually sponsored a resolution asking Gov. Tom Wolf to pardon him.
The night Catlett was killed after what police have said was a drug dispute, Riddick says he was two blocks away with three friends — a claim he has always maintained. But during the trial, his court-appointed defense attorney never called the three alibi witnesses to testify.
Riddick insists his attorney, who has previously declined to comment when reached by NBC News, did not put on a defense.
The trial rested on testimony from a single eyewitness, Shawn Stevenson, who identified him as the shooter and told police he saw Riddick fire a rifle from a fire escape. But he recanted his statement in a 1999 affidavit.
Riddick has said he did not receive the affidavit until 2003 — and by the time he filed an appeal, it was too late. Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act, or PCRA, says that sentence appeals require a one-year filing deadline unless new evidence is obtained, in which case it must be filed within 60 days.
Riddick's appeal was denied.
Nine years later, in 2012, an examination by forensics firearms expert William Conrad found that Riddick could not have been the shooter.
In December 2017, two of the judges who had denied Riddick's latest appeal acknowledged a flaw in the system. They wrote that it was "clear to all that it is likely that an innocent man sits behind bars for no better reason than a poorly conceived statute."
But then a group of Georgetown University students got involved in the case.
Marc Howard, one of the country's leading voices for criminal justice and prison reform, teaches a course at Georgetown University called "Making an Exoneree," in which students examine cases of incarcerated people with a strong claim of innocence. (Howard teaches the class along with his childhood friend Marty Tankleff, who spent more than 17 years in a New York maximum-security prison after being convicted of killing his parents before being exonerated in December 2007.)
Mill came to speak at Georgetown and mentioned Riddick's case to Howard, who that night watched the "NBC Nightly News" report that had aired months earlier.
In 2019, three students started to reinvestigate every aspect of Riddick's case, recording about 20 hours of their work along the way, including speaking to his family and his attorney as they searched for additional witnesses.
By then, Philadelphia had elected a new district attorney: Larry Krasner, a progressive crusader who had been a civil rights lawyer for 25 years and, before that, a public defender.
Krasner had just hired a new head of the Conviction Integrity Unit: Patricia Cummings, one of the top experts in the United States on innocence. She discovered a long pattern of corruption involving police and prosecutions regularly hiding exculpatory evidence to win convictions.
In April 2019, Riddick's lawyer and the three Georgetown students met with Cummings and her team to explain why they believed he was innocent.
The next month, Krasner's office turned over more than 1,000 pages from the prosecutor's file — including reports suggesting that Riddick was not one of the suspected shooters and evidence exculpating Riddick that had not been disclosed.
The Conviction Integrity Unit ultimately worked out a deal to release Riddick from prison, although he is not being formally exonerated in the murder case.
The deal entailed that Riddick would plead guilty to a third-degree murder charge and then get time served. The Conviction Integrity Unit said Friday, without presenting evidence, that it believed Riddick was an accomplice in the killing of Catlett but did not fire the fatal shots.
Dan Slepian and Ron Allen reported from Philadelphia, Daniel Arkin reported from New York.