A Philadelphia man imprisoned for nearly a quarter century for a crime he did not commit is now free.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Rosemarie DeFino-Nastasi vacated Shaurn Thomas’ conviction and sentence, paving the way for his release early Tuesday evening.
NBC10 was there as Thomas embraced his family members.
"It's been a struggle," Thomas said. "Hard struggle. Just can't give up. That's why I'm here today."
In 1994, a jury convicted Thomas of murder in the 1990 killing of Domingo Martinez that happened when Thomas was just 16 years old. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Thomas called his time behind bars a learning experience.
"I learned a lot in prison, I learned... maturity, I learned to respect things and I learned that family will be there -- no matter what -- at the end of the day," Thomas told NBC10.
Thomas and his mother, Hazeline Thomas, insisted he was elsewhere at the time of the killing, according to a news release from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Dechert law firm, which worked pro bono on the case.
"Shaurn engaged in a decades’ long struggle to prove his innocence," attorney James Figorski said. "I joined him in that struggle, and many times it seemed that we would never succeed and he would remain in prison for the rest of his life."
Authorities threw out the conviction in 2015 after a witness admitted to lying about Thomas' role in the killing.
His mother said Thomas fought every day in prison to clear his name.
"I'm proud because ... he was innocent and he did something about it," she said.
"It is gratifying to know that we were able to help Shaurn Thomas obtain his freedom after witnessing the injustice to which he was subjected," Figorski said. "All of us are ecstatic that Shaurn Thomas will finally be free with his family."
The Philadelphia's District Attorney's Office has until a June 13 hearing to decide if they plan on retrying Thomas.
While they couldn't get back the last 24 years of Thomas’ life, his legal team was glad to give the now 43-year-old a future.
"We are so grateful to our partners in righting this terrible injustice," said Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
"Dechert has been a champion for Shaurn, with the team tirelessly working on finding the truth and proving him innocent. We are all so overwhelmed by this result. While we cannot get back the last quarter century of his life for Shaurn, we can give him a future."
Thomas told NBC10 that future doesn't include plans for a permanent return to Philadelphia.
"Philadelphia caused me too many heartaches," he said. "You can always remember the truth. Can't remember a lie. That's what set me free today."
While he won't return permanently he still took the time to explore the city again on Wednesday. He visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and took a tour of the NBC10 studios. He also reflected on the fact that for the first time in more than two decades, he has the freedom to choose what he wants to do.
"Get to smell the trees and see the sun," Thomas said while smiling.
Most importantly, Thomas is getting the chance to get reacquainted with the loved ones who stuck by his side and helped keep him going.
"Family, prayer, hope," he said. "Keep writing. Keep fighting. Never give up."