Stephen Brodie, 39, dropped his head in relief after an interpreter signed to him that Judge Lena Levario had set aside his conviction on the grounds of actual innocence. He then turned to face the courtroom audience, some of whom waved both hands in the air - sign language for applause.
"I feel like a burden has been lifted," Brodie told reporters through a translator. "I feel light. I feel extremely happy."
Brodie's legal woes didn't end immediately, despite the judge's finding of innocence. He was taken back into custody and forced to change from a suit and tie back into a striped jail uniform. He won't be released until officials in Lamar County in east Texas - where Brodie was imprisoned for failing to register as a sex offender - sign off on his release. That was expected to happen later Monday.
A Dallas County sheriff's deputy cut short Brodie's impromptu news conference after the hearing, saying he couldn't permit such a perk for an inmate.
Brodie originally was arrested in 1991 for stealing quarters from a vending machine at a community swimming pool. While he was being questioned about that crime, police began asking about the unsolved rape of the 5-year-old girl a year earlier.
Brodie has been deaf since childhood, but police questioned him for hours without an interpreter. He eventually confessed, but later told The Associated Press he felt scared and pressured.
Richardson police said Monday that Brodie initially declined their offer of an interpreter.
"We felt like we did the best we could," Jonathan Wakefield, an investigator with Richardson police, told the AP. "It was a thorough investigation, and we didn't coerce or intimidate Mr. Brodie. We believe no innocent person should be incarcerated."
When a judge ruled the confession was admissible at trial, Brodie and his attorney figured a guilty verdict, which was punishable by up to 99 years, was all but certain. So they cut a deal - pleading guilty to assaulting the girl in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. After serving that sentence, Brodie served two more prison stints totaling five more years for twice failing to register as a sex offender.
Michelle Moore, Brodie's current attorney, said Brodie was made a scapegoat because police were under pressure to find the person responsible for more than a dozen sexual assaults of young girls terrorizing the north Dallas area in the early 1990s.
Brodie's confession came under repeated attack Monday from experts questioned by Moore and prosecutors Mike Ware and Terri Moore, who supported Brodie's innocence claim.
Carlos Garcia, an Austin defense attorney and an expert in police interrogation techniques, testified that Brodie made a false confession that "was not corroborated by any evidence." After viewing the interrogation, he said the detective leaked to Brodie several key details about the crime scene. Nonetheless, by Garcia's count, Brodie's confession included just two correct details out of 45.
"This is an unreliable piece of evidence," Garcia said of the confession.
In addition, Brodie was convicted even though a hair and a fingerprint that police believed came from the perpetrator were not a match. Moore said prosecutors failed to notify Brodie's trial attorney that testing showed the hair excluded Brodie as the source.
When Brodie was arrested and convicted, police knew the fingerprint, found on the window through which the perpetrator entered the victim's home, did not match their suspect or anyone living there.
A year after Brodie's conviction, police learned the fingerprint belonged to Robert Warterfield, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in 1994. Warterfield also was suspected by Dallas police in the dozen unsolved sexual assaults and attempted assaults of young girls in the Dallas area.
Richardson police discounted the Warterfield print as coincidence, saying Warterfield "somehow touched the frame when he was wandering around in the neighborhood four days prior to this offense," according to police records. The police chief also assigned an investigator to see if Warterfield and Brodie worked together in committing the crime.
"We did pursue leads and information on Mr. Warterfield, but nothing ever developed from that," Wakefield said.
In a 1994 appeal, Brodie's attorney cited the fingerprint on the window. But a judge denied the appeal, ruling that Brodie's confession outweighed the fingerprint evidence.
David Golden, the commander of the Richardson investigations division, testified in a 2010 affidavit that the chief of police at the time stonewalled department efforts to free Brodie.
"I told him our greater obligation was to rectify our mistake with Brodie," Golden said. "He said our only legal obligation was to inform the DA of this discovery and it had been done."
Warterfield, who is free and working for a yard service in Stephenville, according to the state sex offender registry, was never charged in the attack for which Brodie served time. District Attorney Craig Watkins said after the hearing that his office is investigating Warterfield and that the statute of limitations has not expired.
Warterfield appeared at Brodie's hearing Monday and invoked the Fifth Amendment right to not provide testimony that might incriminate himself.
James Hammond, an investigator with the DA's office, testified that Warterfield said "he'd been expecting us" when he recently attempted to interview him about the assault. Warterfield declined to cooperate, saying "it wouldn't be in his best interests," Hammond testified.
"To tell the truth?" Ware asked.
"Yes," Hammond said.
Dallas County has exonerated 20 wrongly convicted people in recent years through DNA testing - more than any other county nationally and all but two states. But the Brodie case does not involve DNA. Instead, it is the county's first potential exoneration involving a false confession, Moore said.
Brodie is the second exoneration case in two years involving Richardson police. The first was Thomas McGowan, who was freed in 2008 after serving 23 years of a life sentence for a rape he did not commit.