Seventeen years after he was sentenced to life in prison for killing a teenage girl, Malcolm Bryant closed his eyes and pumped his fist in a Baltimore courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors said Bryant, 42, had been exonerated by DNA evidence and dropped the charges against him. He was released a few hours later.
Bryant has always maintained his innocence, and over the past eight years won numerous court orders to test evidence from the 1998 killing of 16-year-old Toni Bullock.
When two DNA tests pointed to an unknown person who was not Bryant, prosecutors said the only conclusion was that Bryant was not the killer.
His attorney, Michelle Nethercott, the director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, said clearing Bryant was a long struggle.
"Malcolm Bryant has been incarcerated since Dec. 1, 1998, for a murder that he did not commit," Nethercott told reporters at a news conference at the Baltimore state's attorney's office. "Finally, after six rounds of DNA testing, he was able to show through DNA evidence that he was not the one who killed Toni Bullock.
Bullock, an 11th-grader at Carver Vocational-Technical High School who aspired to be an accountant, was walking home from a drugstore with her best friend on Nov. 20, 1998, when a man dragged her into a vacant lot and stabbed her multiple times.
Police released a composite sketch, and presented Bullock's friend with a photo lineup that included Bryant. The friend picked him out as the killer.
Bryant produced alibi witnesses, but he was convicted of murder by a city jury the following year.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said it was "hard to reconcile that we live in a world that would take 17 years away from an innocent man.""On behalf of the criminal justice system, I'd like to apologize to Mr. Malcolm Bryant and his family for the pain they've endured as a result of his wrongful conviction," Mosby said.
Authorities said they have no leads on who the new DNA profile belongs to, but vowed to reopen and investigate the case.
Relatives of Bullock did not return phone messages seeking comment Wednesday.
In 2011, a court-ordered DNA test on Bullock's nail clippings revealed a partial DNA profile that included a rare identifier that did not match Bryant.
Nethercott later obtained a court order to test a T-shirt that was worn by Bullock, which revealed a full DNA profile that matched the partial profile from the nail clippings.
After the latest lab results, Mosby said, prosecutors sought to determine if there was a plausible explanation for why the other profile might be present. They re-interviewed witnesses, visited the crime scene, and talked to Bryant's alibi witnesses.
"The only plausible reason … is that the DNA is in fact that of the killer," Mosby said. "And the DNA does not match that of Malcolm Bryant, which in all probability means he is not the killer."
Nethercott said prosecutors over the years had resisted the tests, and the city court system's overcrowded dockets made it a challenge just to get into court.
She praised Mosby's office for not trying to contest the latest DNA findings with a new trial. She said it was a prosecutor's job not only to convict the guilty but to clear those wrongly charged.
In court, family members of Bryant yelled "Hallelujah" after the charges were dropped, but in the courthouse hallway after the hearing described his ordeal as a "horror."
"I told them all the time, he was innocent," said his mother, Annie Bryant. She said she was "overjoyed" that he was released.
After his release, Malcolm Bryant told WJZ his first priority was seeing his sons.
Police said they will reopen the case to try to bring closure to Bullock's family.
"The pursuit of this killer … is something the BPD will take very, very seriously," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said.
Bryant's exoneration was "the right thing to do," he said, "so we do it."
The friend told Mosby's investigators that she had caught only a glimpse of the attacker, on a rainy night and under duress.
The man in the composite sketch, Mosby noted, lacked any notable features.
Mosby said the case hasn't caused her to question cases where eyewitness testimony may be the only evidence available.
"I think it's reliable," she said. "In a lot of cases, that's all we have."
Davis said police have changed their procedures for witness identifications. He said the department is moving toward a "double-blind" process in which witnesses are shown possible suspect pictures one-by-one instead of six at a time.
Mosby said she has reorganized her office to look closely at petitions for exonerations.
"The public most know that justice is the only barometer of success for this office," Mosby said.