CHICAGO (CBS) -- Two men who were convicted of arson and murder as teenagers were released from prison after 35 years.
The men – Arthur Almendarez and John Galvan – had their prison sentences vacated by an Illinois Appellate Court panel. They were walked out of the Cook County Jail Thursday night.
One family member yelled, "he's a free man."
"I'm trying not to let the anger poison my soul," Almendarez said and embracing his family. "I've been fighting this whole time. I've been so mad."
Almendarez said his mother, who passed away, is not here to see him as a free man.
No, after 35 years behind bars, he said he does not know how to be free.
"I don't," He said. "I grew up in prison. I was 20 years old when I got locked up. All I know how to do is be a convict. Now I gotta learn how to be a man in the world and society."
It was an emotional night as the men's families and supporters prepared to welcome them home.
Consider this – back when they were taken into custody, Galvan was only 18 and Almendarez 19.
Chicago Police arrested the men for an arson in the early-morning hours on Sept. 21, 1986. An apartment building at 2603 W. 24th Pl. in the Little Village neighborhood went up in smoke. Two young men - Guadalupe and Julio Martinez, who lived in the upstairs apartment with their family – were both killed.
Almendarez and Galvan were arrested nine months later, according to the appellate decision. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Both have always maintained their innocence, and claimed that two Chicago Police detectives beat a confession out of them. After countless appeals and 35 years later, the appellate court vacated the sentence – resulting in their release.
Their family members were shocked to get the call.
"We have been waiting for this day for 35 years," said Almendarez's sister, Laura Guevara. "It's overdue."
"I can't breathe until he walks out - I can't," said Almendarez's sister, Lydia Villalobos.
"It's unbelievable – I mean, it was like a living nightmare, and I can't believe it's over," said Galvan's mother, Linda Flores. She added that the first thing she wants to do with her son is "give him a hug. I want him to just take it slow. So much in this world has changed in 35 years."
Family members gathered outside the Cook County Jail at 5 p.m. Thursday. They were determined to wait to see Almendarez and Galvan walk out the doors.
It is worth emphasizing that Almendarez and Galvan's sentences were only vacated – they were not exonerated. In about two weeks, they will return to court, at which time it will be determined whether the Cook County State's Attorney's office drops the case completely or prepares to retry it from the beginning.
for more features.