ROCKFORD — Patrick Pursley, who spent 23 years in prison for the murder of Andy Ascher, was acquitted of the charges Wednesday after a retrial.
Some courtroom spectators burst into applause as Judge Joe McGraw announcing his decision, citing concerns about ballistics evidence used during Pursley's first murder trial.
McGraw said prosecutors had “not met their burden” in the retrial of Pursley, 53, of Rockford.
"I could not find physical evidence linking Mr. Pursley to the crime scene," McGraw said.
"I'm just very grateful to live to see this day get here," Pursley said outside the courtroom after the verdict. "I'm very grateful that the judge was methodical and took his time with this and just saw the evidence for what it was. It's all still numb to me."
Pursley was convicted in 1994 of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Andy Ascher, 22. on April 2, 1993.
He was granted a new trial in 2017 after ballistics tests showed the Taurus 9 mm handgun used to convict him could not be definitively proved to be the murder weapon. Pursley did not testify during the three-day bench trial that concluded Tuesday.
"It's not like a Rorschach test. Everyone is looking at the same evidence," McGraw said. “No one IDs the bullets recovered from the scene as fired from the Taurus."
McGraw said Tuesday that the evidence presented in 1993 was scant by today's standards, and when one begins with "scant evidence you're not in a good position to re-evaluate it years later."
James Brun and Andrew Fisk, the assistant state's attorneys handling the cases, left the courtroom without comment after the verdict. State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross released a statement saying the "duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely convict."
"In this case, the court found that the evidence presented by the state at the retrial did not rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," she said in the statement. "We respect the court's decision."
Steve Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who works with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said Pursley had sent letters to the center seeking help on his case. In one letter, Pursley said, "'The gun that was seized from my home did not fire the bullets or the shell casings. I am innocent.'"
"This is the first post-conviction exoneration based on ballistic testing that I'm aware of in the nation," Drizin said. "And today, based on the judge's findings, it is clear what Patrick said to me more than a decade ago was absolutely true. Those bullets, those casings, did not come from that gun."
Pursley said he thinks he wants to become a lawyer, and intends to pursue a certificate of innocence "in due time." That requires a separate court proceeding and allows those exonerated to receive compensation, which is set by law. Those like Pursley who have spent more than 14 years in prison qualify for an amount capped at $199,150.
Pursley's son and two daughters couldn't attend the Wednesday's proceedings, but fellow two other exonerees, John W. Horton Jr. and Alan Beaman, turned out to support for Pursley.
"Wrongful convictions disproportionately target African-American males," Pursley said as he stood with Horton, who is black, and Beaman, who is white.
Said Horton: "To watch him finally get that freedom that I was blessed to experience last year, it was special. It was personal, real personal. I'm as grateful for him as I was my own self."