SAVANNAH — After spending more than half their lives in prison for a crime their lawyers insist they had no part in, three former U.S. soldiers learned Thursday that they are finally free from prosecution.
A Georgia prosecutor said her office told a judge Thursday it would not seek a new trial in the decades-old slaying.
"You didn't realize how big a weight was sitting on your chest. Now that it's over, it's like I can breathe," one of the men, Mark Jones, said in an interview Thursday from Port Aransas, Texas, where he now lives.
Jones, Kenneth Gardiner and Dominic Lucci were released from prison in December, after the Georgia Supreme Court said in a unanimous ruling that prosecutors improperly withheld a police report that would have helped their defense.
After the court threw out the convictions, prosecutors had the option of putting them on trial again.
The three were in their early 20s when they were convicted of murder in the slaying of Stanley Jackson. He was shot with a "semi-automatic assault type weapon" while standing on a street corner in Savannah, Georgia, on Jan. 31, 1992, court records show.
Prosecutors have said the crime was racially motivated. The three former soldiers are white, and Jackson was black.
They spent more than a quarter of a century of their lives in prison, "25 and a half years of being in hell," said Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit which works to free innocent people and took up their case in 2009.
"I will say this until the day I die — there's no doubt in my mind that these three men had absolutely nothing to do with this crime," McCloskey said.
All were Army soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart at the time of the killing, and had spent the evening of Jan. 31, 1992, at the rehearsal dinner for Jones and his fiancée, who planned to marry the next day. They headed into Savannah for an impromptu bachelor party around 9:30 p.m. that night.
Dawn Barnett, Jones' then-fiancée, recalled a half-joking warning as they headed off: "Don't you dare call me and tell me you're in jail at 3 in the morning because of drunkenness," she told the AP in a previous interview.
Around 10 p.m. that night, Jackson was gunned down while standing on a street corner in a high-crime part of Savannah. The three soldiers were arrested a short time later.
No physical evidence tied them to the shooting, and their lawyers called the evidence against them extremely weak. After leaving the rehearsal, there was no way they could have made it to the scene of the killing at the time it happened, one of their lawyers, their defense lawyers said.
An eyewitness, James White, later admitted that he hadn't gotten a good look at the shooters and was pressured to identify the soldiers at trial.
In November, the Georgia Supreme Court found that prosecutors failed to give the defense a police report describing an incident hours after the men were arrested. A witness had told police that white men with military style haircuts and semi-automatic weapons drove through a public housing project that night threatening "to shoot blacks who hung out on street corners."
The report, had police shared it with defense lawyers, would have been "a solid avenue" for the men's defense, said Peter Camiel of Seattle, one of the lawyers who worked to free them.
"It would have been really the critical piece of evidence because this was a one eyewitness case with no forensic evidence at all connecting my clients to the crime," he said. "They had the perfect alibi — they're sitting there being questioned by detectives at the very time these other folks are out terrorizing the black community."
The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, saying the report "clearly would have been helpful to the defense."
"It was evidence that others similar in appearance were threatening a racial attack similar to that alleged to have been suffered by Jackson, but three hours after his slaying, when the defendants were already in custody," a summary of the decision states.
Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said her chief assistant prosecutor "reviewed every piece of evidence, went over it with a fine tooth comb."
"Based on the age of the case, witnesses no longer being available and other issues, it just could not be retried," Heap said Thursday.
Prosecutors had also contacted the family of Jackson, the victim, to let them know, said Heap, who didn't work in the district attorney's office when the original case was tried.
"I wasn't even 21 years old when this happened," Jones said.
"We spent the better part of three decades in prison for something we didn't do," he said. "We're finally completely free."