- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

JESSUP, Md. A man imprisoned 27 years for the death of a convenience store security guard went home from prison yesterday after a judge overturned his murder conviction, finding grave errors by virtually everyone involved in the trial.
"Freedom is something I look at now as so precious," said Michael Austin, 53, standing just outside the entrance to the Maryland House of Correction.
Mr. Austin was free to leave after posting a $10,000 bail set earlier in the day by the Baltimore judge who ordered a retrial. Mr. Austin drove away with his brother, his niece and Yvonne Rahman, 56, a Baltimore schoolteacher who has worked with Mr. Austin in prison and offered to give him a home.
Miss Rahman said two peach cobblers were waiting for Mr. Austin in her freezer.
"He's been talking about it for five years," Miss Rahman said of the cobblers.
"I'm thrilled, I'm just thrilled. The fact that he's coming home after 27 years of this injustice is just a prayer answered."
Mr. Austin, who maintains his innocence, said he feels "very fortunate" to be free.
"A lot of people ask me if I'm angry at anyone, but it's not about that," he said. "It's about me trying to regain my life back."
Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who granted bail yesterday, overturned Mr. Austin's conviction Thursday, saying the problems at his trial "cumulatively, present the inescapable conclusion that he was denied a fair trial."
James McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, the New Jersey group that fought for Mr. Austin's release, said he was "elated."
"I can't imagine spending a day in prison, let alone 27 years, for something I didn't do," said Mr. McCloskey, who also said that a construction job had been lined up for Mr. Austin.
Sharon May, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore, said a decision on whether to appeal, drop the charges or proceed with a new trial was not expected until after Jan. 1.
"We hope they will finally give up the ghost and let this go," Mr. McCloskey said. "They have bigger fish to fry."
Mr. Austin was convicted in the 1974 shooting death of Roy Kellam at an East Baltimore market.
His arrest was based on a mug-shot identification by a clerk at the market who told detectives at the scene that the shooter was a light-skinned black man, about 5-foot-8. Mr. Austin is 6-foot-5 and dark skinned.
Centurion Ministries, which seeks to exonerate those wrongly convicted, found that prosecutors failed to tell the jury that the man presented to them as Mr. Austin's accomplice was freed after police said they had the wrong man.
The only physical evidence against Mr. Austin was a wallet card with the accomplice's name scribbled on it. Judge Byrnes ruled that was no evidence at all.
Judge Byrnes also said Mr. Austin's trial judge gave faulty jury instructions and that the prosecutor erred. He said the defense attorney, who has since died, was unaware he was defending the case until the day of trial and didn't subpoena key evidence and witnesses.
The victim's widow, Alviera Kellam, said she supports the judge's decision to overturn Mr. Austin's conviction.
"There's so much evidence that it wasn't him, and it doesn't look like there was any that says it was him," she said. "I feel sorry for him. I hope it's over now."
Mr. Austin said he intends now to find a way to get involved in youth ministry, saying "I have to give back a lot of people gave to me."
Asked about New Year's Eve plans, Mr. Austin said, "I'm going to go to church to thank God. I'm going to drink a little champagne, go to some jazz clubs and listen to jazz, and just hang out with some friends."

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