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Man walks free after federal judge tosses murder conviction

John Floyd smiles as he leaves the Hale Boggs Federal Building and Courthouse in New Orleans, Thursday, June 22, 2017. Floyd, who was imprisoned for 36 years, walked free Thursday after a federal judge threw out his murder conviction and life sentence for a newspaper editor's stabbing in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (AP Photo/Sophia Germer)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Set free after 36 years in prison for a murder conviction that took decades to unravel, John Floyd donned a black T-shirt bearing the word “justice” Thursday before leaving the courthouse where a federal judge formally signed off on his release.

Floyd’s path to freedom began months ago, when U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled in September that no reasonable juror would find Floyd guilty of murder in the November 1980 stabbing death of Times-Picayune copy editor William Hines.

But Floyd didn’t get his first taste of freedom since his 1981 arrest until after Vance approved the conditions of his release from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum-security prison largely populated by men serving life sentences with no hope of parole.

“This T-shirt tells it all,” Floyd said in a soft voice after a brief hearing at the New Orleans courthouse. “I never lost hope. I knew one day it would come.”

In May, Vance had ordered prosecutors to either retry Floyd or release him within 120 days. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to Floyd’s release while it appeals the judge’s earlier decision to toss out his 1982 conviction and life sentence.

Floyd had confessed to killing Hines and another man — three days and 1 mile (1.6 kilometer) apart and under similar circumstances. But the judge said new evidence supports Floyd’s claim that police beat him to coerce a confession.

Vance said Floyd’s conviction was based entirely on his statements to police investigators, who found no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony linking Floyd to the crime scene.

The judge’s order Thursday says Floyd will live in Carencro, Louisiana, on supervised release. He will work there on a farm.

Floyd glanced up at the cloudy skies outside the federal courthouse in New Orleans as he faced a gaggle of cameras and reporters.

“It will take me a while to get used to it,” he said. “It feels good.”

Floyd hugged another former Angola inmate, Calvin Duncan, on his way out of the courtroom. Duncan, 54, served 28 years in prison for a murder conviction before he was freed in 2011 under a plea deal.

Duncan joked that he couldn’t greet Floyd during their years together in prison without his friend professing his innocence.

“But he needs a lot of help now,” Duncan said. “He needs to learn how it feels to be free.”

Floyd, now 67, was a 32-year-old “drifter” living in the French Quarter when Hines and Rodney Robinson, a businessman, were stabbed to death. Both victims were gay and were killed after apparently sharing a drink and having consensual sex with their attacker.

Police found Hines’ body in his bedroom on Nov. 26, 1980, and believed he was killed a day earlier by a welcomed visitor. Robinson’s body was found Nov. 28, 1980, in the hallway of a downtown hotel.

Floyd has been in custody since January 1981, when police arrested him at a French Quarter bar. Floyd testified that a police detective, John Dillman, and another officer bought him five or six beers at the bar before his arrest.

Floyd also testified that Dillman beat him during his interrogation after he initially denied killing Hines or Robinson.

A judge acquitted Floyd of murder in Robinson’s killing but convicted him of second-degree murder in Hines’ death.

In her ruling last year, Vance said physical evidence at the scene of Robinson’s death excluded the possibility that Floyd killed him “in the manner described in his confession.” Instead, the evidence pointed to a killer of a different race and blood type than Floyd.

“If Floyd was willing — for whatever reason — to falsely confess to one murder, it is far more likely that his other confession is false as well,” the judge wrote. “The considerable evidence tending to undermine the Robinson confession, therefore, also serves to undercut the Hines confession.”

The National Registry of Exonerations has examined 2,049 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989 and found it included 245 cases of innocent men and women who confessed, according to registry senior researcher Maurice Possley. Nearly 75 percent of those false confessions were in homicide cases, Possley said in an email.

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