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Wrongly Convicted And Imprisoned For 20 Years, New Jersey Man Has Everything To Be Thankful For This Year

PARAMUS, N.J. (CBSNewYork) - A man from New Jersey spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

On Tuesday, he sat down with CBS2's Hazel Sanchez to talk about being a free man and getting his life back.

A hard days' work under a clear blue sky might seem a simple thing many might take for granted, but not Ralph Lee.

"What a beautiful day," said the 57-year-old.

Lee spent 24 years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the 1993 robbery and murder of 22-year-old video store clerk Tito Merino at a shop in Paterson, N.J.

Lee and his codefendant say police pressured them to confess to Merino's murder.

They recanted their confessions and there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime.

"It was heartbreaking for my family, to be taken away from my family," said Lee. "Birthday after birthday. Holidays and everything. It was just real sad."

Thanks to Centurion Ministries and The Innocence Project, new advanced testing confirmed DNA on a baseball cap believed to be worn by the killer did not match Lee or his co-defendant.

In 2018, a judge exonerated them, but freedom came with challenges.

"I didn't know how to deal with society," said Lee. "I was afraid to go outside. I didn't know the streets no more."

Lee says he started to get his life back last fall when he landed a janitorial job in Paramus.

From his first day, Lee loved working at a non-profit that helps employ disabled and economically disadvantaged people.

"He really represents our workers here that have overcome so many obstacles in their life just to have normalcy," said Brigitte Johnson of Careplus Workforce Solutions.

MORE: Pair Wrongly Convicted Of Raping Woman In Central Park To Be Freed

Looking back, Lee says he feels no anger at what happened, but he and his co-defendant have filed legal notices to seek up to $48 million in damages in civil lawsuits against the City of Paterson.

"Right now, I'm just moving forward and not going backward," he said.

When he's not working, Lee spends time with his grandchildren and a married son who was just 5 years old when his father was locked up.

"To be able to embrace them, that's one of the best feelings ever," said Lee. "But you gotta be thankful every day."

For Lee, every day is Thanksgiving.

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