As he languished behind bars for more than two decades, Cory L. Epps swore again and again that he had nothing to do with the murder of Tameka Means on in the early morning of May 26, 1997.
On Thursday, he found an Erie County Court judge who believed him.
And on Friday afternoon, more than two dozen jubilant friends and family members mobbed the 46-year-old Epps as he stepped outside the doors of the county jail a free man. Judge James Bargnesi vacated Epps' murder conviction and ordered his release after hearing evidence that indicated the Buffalo man was a victim of mistaken identify and had spent 20 years behind bars for a crime that someone else committed.
After thanking his lawyers, his wife, Jerrihia, and other family members who never gave up on him, Epps told reporters he needs to spend time connecting with his three children and four grandchildren who were born while he was incarcerated at the Attica State Correctional Facility.
"God gave the judge the truth," said Epps, squinting into the sun. "I'm just trying to get my life back."
"This is the best Christmas present our family ever could have asked for. He swore to us that he never did this, and I always believed him," said Epps' aunt, Saundra Patrick-Dennis, as she fought back tears outside the Erie County Holding Center. "He told me he was innocent when I went to visit him in prison. He told me, 'I had no problem going to talk to the police about this crime, because I knew I didn't do it.'"
Epps was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in June 1998 after a jury convicted him of murder in a road rage incident. A witness had testified that she saw Epps shoot Means following a traffic incident.
Asked if he plans to sue any of the law enforcement officials who put him behind bars after the 1997 murder, Epps said, "I need to sit down with my lawyers and talk about that."
He said he was fortunate to have the help of two "relentless" attorneys, Rebecca Freedman and Glenn Garber of the Exoneration Initiative, a not-for-profit organization based in New York City.
"Some old evidence and some new evidence" led Bargnesi to conclude that Epps was wrongfully convicted of fatally shooting the 23-year-old Means after an early morning "road rage incident" on East Delavan Avenue, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said. Flynn said he agreed with the judge's decision.
Flynn said he decided to have investigators in his office conduct a "thorough re-examination" of Epps' case shortly after taking office in January. The investigators worked with Donna A. Milling and David A. Heraty of the DA's Appeals Bureau.
Flynn said he now believes that an eyewitness to the murder — a woman who was sitting next to Means in her car when a man got out of another vehicle and shot Means in the face — made an honest mistake when she repeatedly identified Epps as the killer.
Another man is now under investigation for the killing and that man looks "eerily similar ... like a twin" to Epps, Flynn said. That man already is serving time for another homicide conviction.
Flynn said he could not discuss what new information his office obtained, explaining that there are security concerns about a new witness.
Flynn said he has found no evidence of improper actions by the prosecutors or Buffalo Police homicide detectives who worked on the case back in 1997 and 1998.
"There was no improper conduct," Flynn said. "They had an eyewitness who was literally sitting next to the victim" when she was killed.
Defense attorneys Garber and Freedman told The Buffalo News that eyewitnesses often make mistakes, and that prosecutors and police should be wary of the potential for mistakes.
"We felt this was a weak case from the get-go," Garber said. "It was a one witness identification with no corroboration."
"There are more wrongful convictions than you could possibly...litigate and bring to justice," Garber added. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Epps has always maintained that he was innocent, Flynn said. He said Epps agreed to be questioned by police after the murder and also agreed to stand in a police lineup in July 1997. The eyewitness identified Epps as the killer at that lineup, he said.
Epps and his wife insisted that they were eating an early-morning meal at a Perkins restaurant when the murder occurred, Flynn said. The couple produced a receipt from Perkins as proof that they had eaten there that morning, he said. Police went to the restaurant and questioned waitresses and other employees, but could not verify that the couple were there at the time of the murder, he said.
"We were eating at Perkins when all this happened," Jerrihia Epps told The News on Friday.
Jerrihia Epps said the eyewitness didn't know her husband and had no reason to have any kind of vendetta against him.
"I just think it was a simple case of mistaken identity," Jerrihia Epps said.
Some of the friends and family members who filled Bargnesi's courtroom to capacity broke out in applause after the judge ordered Epps freed Friday morning. That proceeding followed a closed-door evidence hearing on Thursday.
"The judgment of conviction of Mr. Cory Epps is hereby vacated ... in the interest of justice," Bargnesi said.
"Thank you, judge," one man yelled out.
Epps, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, turned around and flashed a huge smile to his supporters.
Outside the courtroom, Epps' sister Ronique Workman 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," she said. "A witness said she saw him there and she was just plain wrong. ... He's my little baby brother and I love him. ... He's had to go without seeing his kids for 20 years, and not being there when his grandchildren were born."
Workman said her younger brother had worked several jobs, but was unemployed when he was charged with the murder. She said her brother had been in some trouble with the law as a teenager.
During his 1998 trial, it was revealed that Epps had a record as a youthful offender.
Epps walked out of the Holding Center at about 12:30 p.m. Friday and stepped into an alley leading toward Delaware Avenue. Friends and family members ran toward him and engulfed him in a huge group hug.
Epps said he was anxious to get away from the jail and step into the sunlight. He said wanted to devour a hamburger with his loved ones.
"I feel vindicated," Epps said.
At his sentencing, Epps proclaimed his innocence.
"I know I didn't kill her," he told a 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."
In 2000, Epps appealed his conviction, but that appeal was denied. Attorneys from the Exoneration Initiative began working on the case after Epps sent them a letter seven years ago.
Flynn said he sent an investigator and a crime victim advocate from his office out to tell Tameka Means' mother that the man who was convicted of killing her daughter 20 years ago was being set free, and that another individual is now under investigation.
"She's at a point where she knows her daughter is never coming back. She's lived with this for 20 years," Flynn said. "She's accepted this...She doesn't want anyone staying in jail who isn't guilty."
And what advice would Epps give to any other prisoner wrongly imprisoned?
He said he wants to get involved with a program to assist such prisoners.
"Keep the faith. Keep the family ties," Epps said. "Fight to the bitter end."