As Cory L. Epps was led away 19 years ago after being sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a murder he swore he did not commit, he told his family: "The Lord's going to take care of it. Don't worry about it, you all."
Epps' assurances came through Friday morning in an Erie County courtroom packed with his family and friends.
Now 46, Epps, a married father of three now with four grandchildren, was ordered freed in a courtroom packed with relatives, exonerated in the road rage shooting death of Tameka Means of Cheektowaga early on the morning of May 26, 1997.
"The judgment of conviction of Mr. Cory Epps is hereby vacated ... in the interest of justice," said Erie County Court Judge James Barnesi.
Applause broke out and one man yelled: "Thank you, judge."
Epps, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, turned around and flashed a huge smile to his supporters.
Epps won his freedom through the efforts of Exoneration Initiative, a New York City-based non-profit group that provides free legal assistance for wrongful conviction cases which don't involve DNA evidence.
Outside the courtroom today, Epps' sister wiped tears as she said she had always believed in her brother's innocence.
"He has always said from day one he didn't do this and we believed him," Ronque Workman said. "A witness said she saw him there and she was just plain wrong. ... He's my little baby brother and I love him"
Epps' wife, Jerrihia, said she was "thrilled" by the day's developments.
"An injustice was done but justice was served today," she said.
Another sister, Michelle Williams, said the family has not yet decided whether to pursue a lawsuit over the wrongful conviction.
"Today, that's not what is on our mind," she said. "Today, we just want to get our arms around him."
Epps was officially freed at about 12:30 p.m. Friday when he walked out of the Holding Center and was mobbed with hugs and kisses from about 25 family members and friends.
Epps thanked his lawyers and his family and said he is eager to catch up, especially with his children and grandchildren.
"I feel vindicated," Epps said. "God gave the judge the truth. I am just looking to get my life back."
From the moment he was arrested in 1997, Epps had maintained his innocence.
Means was killed at the intersection of East Delavan Avenue and Chelsea Place about 4:15 a.m. May 26, 1997. Prosecutors said that Epps shot her after they quarreled about a traffic incident at East Delavan Avenue and Chelsea Place. He was identified as the shooter by the woman who was the passenger in Means' car.
But Means and his family said he was at a Perkins restaurant with his wife and even produced a receipt from their meal during the trial.
Epps' attorney at the time, Andrew C. LoTempio, had claimed the Buffalo police had the wrong man. He said that police never followed up on leads, including an anonymous letter sent to the court, to determine whether a man who was a fugitive in another murder who looked like Epps was the real killer.
The judge, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. McCarthy, delayed sentencing amid the defense claims but found them to be "at best, second- or third-hand hearsay."
At his sentencing, Epps proclaimed his innocence.
"I know I didn't kill her," he told the judge in 1998. "I feel sorry for her family, but I didn't do it. I had no reason to kill her. The Lord knows that I didn't do it and a lot of people know I couldn't commit this crime."
Epps said his conviction "shocked" him, and insisted he had cooperated with police in their investigation.
"I just don't understand why this happened to me," he added.
In 2000, Epps appealed his conviction. Among evidence presented was sworn testimony from the person who allegedly sent to the letter to the court as well as a jail house informant who said another individual had admitted to killing Means. Also, the passenger in Means' vehicle gave a statement saying that the other man accused in killing Means did look like Epps, but that she still believed Epps was the real shooter.
"That motion was denied and Mr. Epps remained in jail," Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said.
In 2017, attorneys with the DA's office, Donna Milling and David Heraty, began a new review the case and turned up fresh evidence.
Epps' attorneys with the Exoneration Initiative, Glenn Garber and Rebecca Freedman, asked for a new hearing which was held Thursday before Bargnesi. In the closed door hearing new and old evidence was presented.
Bargnesi decided to vacate the conviction, a decision Flynn said he agree with.
'There is not enough evidence to believe Cory Epps is guilty of this murder beyond a reasonable doubt," Flynn said.