A 55-year-old man who spent nearly three decades on death row over the sexual assault and murder of a four-year-old girl in Philadelphia has been freed after prosecutors concluded he is not guilty.
A judge overturned Walter Ogrod’s conviction for the crimes against Barbara Jean Horn, his neighbour, in July 1988.
Prosecutor Carrie Wood apologised to Ogrod, who still faces a small chance of a new trial, saying at a hearing: “I’m sorry it took 28 years.”
She added she now accepted “that you are innocent, and that the words of your statement of confession came from Philadelphia Police detectives and not you”.
Barbara Jean was found by a neighbour in a TV box left on pavement about 1,000ft (300m) from her home. She had head wounds and had been partially wrapped in a garbage bag.
Ogrod was arrested four years later while working as a bakery truck driver.
On Friday, a Philadelphia judge vacated Ogrod’s conviction, based on misconduct by the prosecution and new evidence supporting his innocence.
Ogrod’s lawyers said police had coerced a false confession from him, and his defence lawyers argued that the girl may have died of asphyxiation and not blows to the head.
They said that jailhouse informers fabricated statements from him and that eyewitness accounts do not match Ogrod’s appearance.
His confession, his lawyers said, had wrong details about the crime, including how Barbara Jean died.
A review by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office found violations of Ogrod’s right to due process of law, and that prosecutors had withheld potentially helpful material to his defence.
It is unclear whether authorities have a different suspect.
Prosecutors and Ogrod’s lawyers agreed there is no physical evidence linking him to Barbara Jean.
Ogrod was convicted after a second trial in 1996 after his first ended in a mistrial.
The judge said she was not able to throw out the case completely but lowered the charge to third-degree murder, allowing him to post bail and get released.
The judge ordered a new trial, but prosecutors filed a now-pending request to decline to retry him.
One of his lawyers, James Rollins, said Ogrod was “very tired” and he was heading to a relative’s backyard barbecue.
“He was very pleased and relieved to be out of prison,” Mr Rollins said.
Pennsylvania has executed only three people since the 1970s, the most recent in 1999, and all three voluntarily dropped their appeals.