After 17 years in prison – most of it seeking DNA tests to prove his innocence – Lonnie Erby walked free Monday because genetic testing conclusively showed he had not committed two of the three rapes for which he was convicted, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.
Officials accepted his innocence of the third crime as well and canceled all three convictions in connection with the apparent serial rapes of three girls in separate incidents in 1985 in St. Louis.
Erby won the tests with the help of the Innocence Project and over the objections of Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, who later changed her mind and on Monday joined a celebration that lauded the results.
Erby, who was sentenced in 1986 to 115 years in prison, was hugged Monday by his sister and a son he had seen just once during his prison term.
“I’ve got dreams, you know. I want to go places and do things that I never got the chance to do,” said Erby, 49, surrounded by a throng of well-wishers.
Circuit Judge Jimmie Edwards, who ordered Erby released, said, “I’m sorry for your wrongful conviction. As you know, the science of today is not the science of yesterday.”
The judge’s decision came eight years after the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group formed by defense attorneys, first asked that evidence against Erby be made available for DNA testing.
Joyce fought it, taking the position that DNA testing causes unnecessary upheaval for victims and their families and unneeded expense in cases in which it cannot conclusively rule out guilt.
“I did not feel that we had a situation where the DNA could exonerate him,” she said.
Since one of the three victims had bathed away evidence of semen, Joyce indicated, it could be argued that DNA could not conclusively say Erby was innocent of all three crimes.
Every victim had picked out Erby as her attacker, officials said.
But after a circuit judge ordered testing in the case, and the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld it, Joyce agreed to permit it.