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Brooklyn Man's 1991 Murder Conviction Overturned

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- After a woman was found dead, naked, beaten and dragged into a cross-like position in a park, the friend with whom she left her apartment that night was convicted of murder.

But a quarter century later, Andre Hatchett was a free man. The district attorney overturned his conviction.

As CBS2's Ilana Gold reported, there was an eruption of applause in a Brooklyn courtroom on Thursday.

Hatchett embraced his family seconds after the decision.

"I feel good. I feel good, I'm glad I'm free," he said.

It was the first time he held his grandchildren as a free man. The 49-year-old was in prison for a vicious crime that he didn't commit.

"I've been innocent for 25 years. There's a lot of innocent people in jail," he said.

Hatchett's then-lawyers were never told that prosecutors' star witness had originally identified another man as the killer.

The district attorney's office called that witness along with the evidence, defective and deficient.

"The police in this case did an incredibly sloppy investigation," prosecutor Mark Hale said.

The witness falsely denied on the stand that he'd smoked crack on the day of the killing. And the fact that Hatchett had injuries that raise doubts about his ability to carry out the crime went unmentioned at trial.

"Bad judgment and errors plagued this case from beginning to end,'' one of his lawyers, Jim Brochin, said in a statement ahead of a court date Thursday afternoon, when Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's office planned to ask a judge to throw out Hatchett's conviction.

"Sadly, the evidence we uncovered reveals that the system failed him at every step in the process," said Jim Brochin, who represented Hatchett with the Innocence Project.  "Bad judgment and errors plagued this case from beginning to end."

Hatchett, 49, had been serving 25 years to life in the February 1991 killing of Neda Mae Carter, who was strangled and beaten in the head. She was 38 and lived in a rooming house where Hatchett frequently visited his aunt, according to his lawyers.

After her killing, Hatchett cooperated with police and gave an alibi, according to his legal team, which also includes the Innocence Project.

But a week later, a man named Gerald "Jerry'' Williams was arrested in an unrelated burglary and told police he'd seen the killing in the park. Williams said he and a friend had been about 35 feet away when they heard a woman scream and saw a man standing over someone on the ground, and the man hollered at them to go away.

Williams pointed to a suspect -- who wasn't Hatchett. But the man Williams identified had an alibi and was eliminated as a suspect, prosecutors said.

Then police put Hatchett in a lineup, and Williams picked him out. So did Williams' friend, though she was unsure at first and was never called to testify, Hatchett's lawyers said.

Prosecutors at the time never told Hatchett's then-lawyers that Williams, the only eyewitness to testify, had implicated someone else and had told police he'd smoked crack the day Carter was killed -- information that cast his reliability into question and should have been disclosed, Thompson's office said.

And neither side mentioned anything at Hatchett's trial about his own medical condition that day. He was on crutches, having been shot in the legs and trachea months earlier, injuries that would have made it difficult for him to drag Carter's body and shout at the witnesses.

Hatchett's first trial ended in a mistrial after the judge found the defense lawyer had been ineffective. Hatchett was retried and convicted after testifying in his defense and presenting an alibi witness.

The assistant district attorney who tried the case is no longer a prosecutor and didn't immediately return a message left Thursday at his current office. The judge and Hatchett's trial defense lawyer have died. Contact information for Williams couldn't immediately be found.

Hatchett was denied parole in November, with a parole board noting disciplinary violations.

After a brutal and unfounded incarceration Hatchett said he is not angry, he always believed the truth would surface.

He's now walking without shackles, reunited with his loved ones, and preparing to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday.

"I just want to be with my family and go eat, and get some real food," he said.

His case was among more than 100 that Brooklyn prosecutors have been re-examining, in one of the most ambitious reviews of its kind in the country. So far, the DA's office has disavowed 19 convictions and is standing by 38 others.

Prosecutors said there is a good chance they will never know who the real killer is, but said they are not giving up on the case and are hoping for a new lead.

CBS2 tried to reach the victim's family, but the D.A.'s office said her mother was the only nearby relative. She passed away several years ago.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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