Nearly 20 years after listening as a jury found him guilty of a murder he denied committing, Gerard Richardson on Tuesday heard a judge apologetically dismiss his case after DNA testing showed that a bite mark that played a key role in his conviction couldn't be linked to him.
``I wish I had words for this event, but I don't,'' state Superior Court Judge Julie Marino said. ``You've been through a tremendous ordeal, one that none of us in this room can relate to. I hope this won't be the defining moment of your life, but that it becomes an anecdote.''
Richardson was released on bail in late October on the strength of DNA testing done by the Innocence Project that showed that a bite mark taken from the back of the victim in 1994 couldn't be matched to Richardson.
Richardson was convicted largely on the bite-mark evidence, but defense attorneys have increasingly challenged such evidence in recent years. An Associated Press analysis this year found that at least two dozen defendants either convicted or charged with rape and murder using bite mark evidence have been exonerated since 2000.
After a five-minute hearing, the 48-year-old Richardson said he was looking forward to spending Christmas with his family, a group that includes three sons, three daughters and 10 grandchildren.
``I have a lot of presents to buy,'' he said with a smile.
Richardson was convicted in 1995 of the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose body was found in a ditch in Bernards Township in north-central New Jersey. Richardson has conceded that he was involved in drugs at the time and wasn't a model citizen, but he always denied killing Reyes. He said he never gave up hope that he would be exonerated, even in his darkest hours.
``It's like the judge said, nobody can imagine what I went through, but I made it,'' he said. ``Now I've got bigger things ahead.''
Through a spokesman, the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on the case. The prosecutor's office didn't oppose Richardson's release on bail in October, and had been given until Tuesday by Marino to decide whether to retry him.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said although Richardson's case is closed, the group would continue to seek to have the DNA results put into a state database in hopes of finding Reyes' killer. Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, said legislation is pending in New Jersey that would make it easier for private testing labs to get their results into the state's database.
Richardson's older brother Kevin agreed that the quest for justice must go on.
``There's now closure as it relates to our family, but we don't ever want to lose sight of the fact that a young woman lost her life and that her family deserves closure, too,'' he said.