VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - Seventeen years ago, Alan G. Northrop and Larry W. Davis were led from a Clark County courtroom in shackles, convicted of brutally attacking and raping a woman in La Center.
Wednesday, they walked out of the courtroom free men, smiling and hugging family members after a judge dismissed their charges, citing new DNA evidence showing they weren't at the scene and pointing to different assailants.
The dismissal signaled the future, they told reporters in the courthouse lobby. They can now make up for lost time with children, nieces, nephews and friends, and enjoy the simple things in life, such as having a job and going to the grocery store. Their record is completely cleared; they no longer must register as sex offenders.
"It's just a major relief that it's over," Northrop said. "If it wasn't for the Innocence Project and my friends in prison, I don't know if I would have gotten through it."
The DNA reversal didn't come easy.
It took until 2006 for a Clark County judge to approve the post-conviction DNA testing and until earlier this year for the results to come back, showing a match with two different unknown men. The evidence, taken from the victim's fingernails and pubic hair, hadn't been tested back in 1993 because of the lack of technology to test small amounts.
The new testing was performed at the request of the Innocence Project Northwest, which operates in conjunction with the University of Washington School of Law.
Presented with the new evidence on April 21, Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard vacated the men's convictions, which still gave prosecutors the option of taking the case to trial again.
At Wednesday's hearing, prosecutors officially dismissed the charges without prejudice, meaning they could still be refiled should any new evidence be found.
But there's no sign of that.
"Are we in agreement that the only evidence linking these men to the crime is the victim's testimony?" Woolard asked Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve on Wednesday.
"Certainly the principal evidence," Fairgrieve said.
The victim, a then-36-year-old housekeeper cleaning a home, had identified Northrop and Davis as her attackers in 1993, though she was unsure of one of her identifications and initially didn't identify the other suspect in a photo laydown. She had been blindfolded during the event and got only a glimpse of her attackers.
Fairgrieve said that when reached by telephone last month, the woman said she did not want to take part in a second trial, one of two reasons prosecutors decided to drop charges. The other reason: While prosecutors tried to find other reasons to explain the new DNA evidence such as from the victim's family or acquaintances, they couldn't.
Northrop and Davis were convicted by two separate juries of rape, kidnapping and burglary charges and spent 17 years in prison. Davis completed his sentence on Jan. 4; Northrop was released when the judge vacated the convictions.
At hearing's end, John Pantazis, staff attorney for Innocence Project Northwest, said that while he appreciated that charges were dropped, he was dismayed the prosecutor's office never acknowledged the men's innocence nor issued a public apology.
"It is troubling to know the state will not acknowledge that a tragedy took place," Pantazis said. "Mr. Northrop and Mr. Davis are victims, too."
When asked by the judge for a response, Fairgrieve said he wished to make no statement. However, in a later interview, Fairgrieve said his position is that there's not enough evidence to tell if the men are innocent.
"The reason we don't feel an apology is appropriate is that we feel the cases were prosecuted professionally," he said. After hearing about the new DNA evidence, "we engaged in a diligent investigation."
Prosecuting Attorney Art Curtis, who held the elected position when the men were convicted, did not respond to requests for comment.
After the hearing, Northrop and Davis said they didn't harbor any ill will against the prosecutors who charged them in the Jan. 11, 1993, attack, but they admitted it took them years to say that.
"I could say some things that would be vicious, but I'm not," Northrop told reporters. "They've seen the light. That's all there is to it."
"Halfway up the creek it could have gone a different way," echoed Davis, noting he first went through numbness, shock and anger before letting go. "I'm just glad to be out so I can soar like an eagle."
Asked what they plan to do next, both men were at a loss for words. Now working at a metal fabricator outlet, Northrop said he planned to spend time with his three children and grandchild. He's also recently engaged to a high school friend. Davis, 53, has a construction job and lives in Ridgefield.
Information from: The Columbian