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Framed Man Freed - 20 Years Later

Prosecutors threw out charges Friday against a 53-year-old man who served 20 years in prison for the sexual molestation of two girls who recanted their allegations.

The victims, who were 4 and 6 when they made the charges, testified that they falsely accused the man under pressure from their grandmother because she wanted to protect the real abuser - a cousin of the girls.

More than 40 members of the family of Sylvester Smith were in court when the charges against him were dismissed. Smith's reaction to the dismissal was "a jubilation," said his attorney, Roy Trest. "We all are jubilant."

Speaking for his client, Trest told The Brunswick Beacon that Smith wanted to thank God for giving him strength, thank the girls who ended the nightmare, and thank the judge for having "the integrity to right an injustice."

The newspaper also reports Smith bypassed onlookers and others as he was set free, and was instead privately reunited with relatives who were waiting in a separate room in the courthouse, according to the Brunswick Beacon.

Smith was serving two consecutive life sentences after being convicted in 1984. At the time of the accusation, he had been the boyfriend of one of the girls' mothers and was living with them.

Prosecutor Rex Gore asked the younger girl Friday why she didn't come forward earlier. "I was just afraid to," she said. "I was just afraid nobody would believe me."

The other victim said she decided to recant now because, "I wanted to get something off my chest."

Gore said he will not pursue charges against the cousin, who was 9 at the time, because he was so young. He is serving a life sentence in state prison for first-degree murder, Gore said.

Gore said he first heard from one of the victims this summer, when she wrote that Smith was being punished too harshly. About two weeks ago, the victim contacted the defense attorney, saying the case had haunted her for years.

The grandmother was trying to protect the cousin, but he "would not have been prosecuted except as a juvenile," Gore said. "Nothing would have happened to him, other than he would have gotten some treatment." The grandmother has since died.

Gov. Mike Easley, then the Brunswick County district attorney, prosecuted the original case, but he is not accused of wrongdoing.

He will reportedly be getting a letter from the defense - a request that the governor issue a pardon for Smith, to help clear his name.