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Man freed in ’92 killings after new witnesses come forward

Calvin Buari, left, talks with his lawyer Oscar Michelen following his release from Green Haven correctional facility, shown in background, Monday, May 8, 2017, in Stormville, N.Y. Buari, who spent 22 years in prison for a double killing he said he didn't do, was freed after his conviction was overturned.(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

STORMVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — A man who spent 22 years in prison for a double killing he said he didn’t do walked free Monday, his New York conviction overturned but prosecutors vowing to get it restored.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Calvin Buari said as he left a prison in New York’s Hudson Valley, to cheers and hugs from a half-dozen loved ones who’d come to bring him home. “It’s still a continuous fight, but it’s so much better on the other side of the wall.”

A judge had overturned the conviction and ordered the 46-year-old man freed without bail Friday, after two newfound witnesses testified they’d seen a different man commit the deadly shooting and a third said Buari was chatting with her down the block when the gunfire rang out. Administrative issues delayed his release until Monday.

Brothers Elijah and Salhaddin Harris, both in their 20s, were parked on a Bronx street when a gunman walked up and fired about a dozen rounds into their car in September 1992. Efforts to reach their relatives by phone or email weren’t immediately successful Monday.

Buari was part of a neighborhood corps of crack dealers and sellers; “I was very immature,” he says now. Authorities saw him as particularly ominous. Then-District Attorney Robert Johnson said residents “had every reason to fear for their safety as long as he was free to roam the streets.”

Six months after the killings, Buari was charged. A half-dozen drug associates and acquaintances testified against him. A jury took only two hours to convict him of murder, and he was sentenced in 1995 to 50 years to life in prison.

The case took a turn with a 2003 confession from another man: the key witness against him, Dwight Robinson. But Robinson later recanted and said he wasn’t involved in the killings. He said Buari had threatened him and offered him money to confess falsely, which Buari denies. Courts refused to toss Buari’s conviction then.

Robinson, who was never charged in the Harris brothers’ deaths, went on to tell Buzzfeed News in 2015 that Buari hadn’t been the gunman. But when asked whether he himself fired the shots, Robinson said, “Anybody coulda done it,” according to BuzzFeed.

Messages left for a possible attorney for him Monday night weren’t immediately returned.

The new witnesses – two of whom implicated Robinson – came forward after Buari’s lawyers and family publicized his exoneration effort in recent years. They testified at a recent hearing. Robinson, who’s in prison on a murder conviction himself, did not.

Bronx State Supreme Court Justice Eugene Oliver Jr. found the new witnesses credible, saying they provided “direct and straightforward” accounts from people who weren’t previously embroiled in the case. The judge said their testimony amounted to grounds for a new trial, but he stopped shortly of declaring Buari innocent.

Prosecutors insist he’s not. They stand by his conviction, plan to appeal the judge’s ruling and will retry the case if necessary, Assistant District Attorney Felicity Lung said. She portrayed Buari as a mink-coat-wearing, BMW-driving drug peddler with a history of intimidating witnesses.

His lead lawyer, Oscar Michelen, said prosecutors’ position was “based on nothing but anger and vestiges of the past.”

Buari, for now, plans to focus on his case and family, particularly cheering up his mother, who’s been seriously ill. Ultimately, he hopes to go into business.

“I know I could be successful,” he said, “if I could fight the way that I did to get over those walls.”

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Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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