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Pennsylvania inmate who served 24 years freed after conviction lifted

By Mike Bambach
Pennsylvania inmate who served 24 years freed after conviction lifted
Shaurn Thomas, set free after 24 years in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit, celebrates with his lawyers after his release Tuesday. Photo courtesy Will Bunch/Twitter

May 24 (UPI) -- A Philadelphia man who spent 24 years in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit walked out a free man Tuesday after his conviction was vacated.

After his release Shaurn Thomas said he's long been confident his day would come.

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"I felt the justice system was going to prevail sooner or later, and that somebody would hear my cries," he said, "and they heard them."

Thomas' long journey was a victory for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which took up his case more than a decade ago. It also marked the first time the district attorney's overhauled Conviction Review Unit discovered evidence that helped overturn a conviction.

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Thomas always insisted he was not involved in the 1990 killing of Domingo Martinez, who was shot dead while taking $25,000 to a check-cashing store he owned. Thomas, 16 at the time, was at the former Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders for an unrelated offense on the day of the killing.

Nonetheless, a jury convicted Thomas in 1993 and sentenced him to life in prison.

Thomas' attorneys began working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project in January and last month investigators said they had found a police homicide folder on the case that had been missing for decades. Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock said it bolstered Thomas' claim of innocence.

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Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi subsequently removed the conviction against Thomas and paved the way for his release Tuesday evening.

Wearing a Muslim skullcap after leaving the facility, Thomas told reporters he holds no grudges.

"In my faith, there's no need to," he said. "If I hold a grudge, I ain't never going to grow."

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Thomas, now 43, also called his time in prison a learning experience.

"I learned a lot in prison," he said. "I learned maturity, I learned to respect things and I learned that family will be there -- no matter what -- at the end of the day."

Thomas embraced his mother, Hazeline, and raised arms with his lawyers, Jim Figorski and Marissa Bluestine, outside the prison entrance after his release.

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"I'm proud because he was innocent and he did something about it," Hazeline Thomas said. "The hardest part was them not believing me from the beginning. Truthfully, I lost a lot of years with that."

Prosecutors have until June 13 to decide if they plan on retrying Thomas, but Wellbrock said that's unlikely.

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