Thirty years ago, three men broke into a Brooklyn, N.Y., Burger King, robbing the store and gang-raping an 18-year-old worker who had been closing up the eatery.
But the brutal attack—and the subsequent police investigation—landed four men behind bars. The fourth was a then-17-year-old named Mark Denny, whom the 18-year-old identified in a police lineup. Although the three rapists said that Denny wasn’t there, and with no evidence linking him to the crime scene, her testimony was enough to put Denny behind bars.
Now, the New York Post reports, after Denny spent 30 years behind bars, acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has confirmed what Denny maintained all along: He was innocent.
On Wednesday, Gonzalez moved to exonerate Denny, who was flanked by his family in New York Supreme Court in Brooklyn after his conviction was dismissed. Arrested before becoming a legal adult, Denny emerges from prison a middle-aged man. Through the years, his family stood strong beside him, believing in his innocence and fighting for his freedom.
“Prison was an ugly experience for me. I almost lost myself. Now I’m a free man,” Denny told reporters in court. “This type of justice is needed; I appreciate everything that everyone has done.”
According to CBS New York, Denny maintained his innocence even when a guilty plea would have yielded him a lighter sentence. He was eventually aided by the Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongfully convicted.
As the New York Post reports, the rape victim told police there may have been a fourth attacker—but didn’t initially identify Denny when shown his photograph. But the teenager, whose eyes were reportedly covered for some of the attack, picked Denny out of a lineup days later.
The Innocence Project New Orleans notes that eyewitness testimony, despite being “one of the most common pieces of evidence” presented in court, has been shown to be unreliable. Trauma can distort memory, and studies have shown that most people fail at remembering or recalling events as they actually happened. For these reasons, eyewitness misidentification is reportedly the “leading evidentiary cause” of wrongful convictions, according to the group.
Denny’s family hasn’t indicated whether they’ll seek compensation from the state of New York for the conviction; New York currently places no limit on the amount of money a person wrongfully imprisoned can seek.
Denny says he feels no ill will toward the victim, telling reporters that he wishes “I could have been the hero that day she needed,” according to the New York Post.
Meanwhile, his family is elated to have him home for Christmas. They say they’re searching for an apartment in the New York City borough’s Crown Heights neighborhood for him, and are looking forward to sharing meals together and helping him get his life on track. Now that he’s free, CBS reports that Denny has considered becoming a barber, and hopes to own his own shop.
Read more at the New York Post and CBS New York.