After approximately 41 years, Ledura Watkins walked out of Michigan’s Wayne County Jail a free man.
Watkins, who is now 61 years old, spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars serving time for a murder he did not commit, The Root reports.
This long overdue justice came after prosecutors found that Watkins’ 1976 conviction was based on faulty evidence. One single strand of hair sealed his fate.
“It’s really surreal ... kind of unbelievable,” Watkins told reporters of his release. “But I’m feeling great. I expected this to happen. I didn’t think it would take 41 years.”
At just 20 years old, Watkins was charged with first-degree murder in the 1975 shooting death of then 25-year-old Yvette Ingram during a home invasion.
During the trial, Watkins was connected to the crime scene by police-lab analysts who tested a single hair that an FBI expert witness claimed was microscopically similar and could have come from Watkins.
He was sentenced to life in prison but now gets to reclaim his life thanks to the Innocence Project at the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School that reviewed his case. In January, they asked the courts to overturn the conviction.
“It is simply a lab analyst’s subjective opinion and has no place in our criminal-justice system. This is why a statewide review of hair-comparison cases is critical,” Marla Mitchell-Cichon, the director of the law school’s Innocence Project, reportedly told The Washington Post.
Prosecutors agreed that, under the current FBI standard for hair comparison, the evidence used to find Watkins guilty was flawed.
In addition to finally getting his freedom, Watkins may also be eligible for up to $50,000 per year for each year he spent behind bars, according to Michigan law. This would earn him approximately $2 million for all the years he lost to a system that failed him.
Although Watkins’ exoneration comes as great news for him and his family, his case sheds light on the fact that justice for people of color, particularly African-Americans, is practically a foreign concept.
If it weren’t for the Innocence Project, an innocent man would have wasted away in a prison cell, which is sadly the outcome that many men of color face in this country.
The news of Watkins’ release also coincides with the not guilty verdict in the 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez — who was actually filmed killing Castile in cold blood — gets off scot-free. Meanwhile, people like Watkins and countless others spend decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit based on shoddy evidence, such as a single strand of hair.