- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

TOWSON, Md. Bernard Webster walked out of Circuit Court for Baltimore County a free man this week after serving 20 years in prison for a rape DNA testing showed he didn't commit.

“I'm just happy to be out,” said the 40-year-old, waving to reporters as he walked with attorneys. He declined to say more.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian Kahl ordered him freed from the custody of the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown on Thursday after DNA tests proved his innocence.

“There's nothing that anyone can say to justify what happened in this case,” Judge Kahl told Mr. Webster. “Justice moves slow at times, and in your case, it moved very, very slow.”

Mr. Webster is the third person in Maryland and the 115th nationwide to have a conviction overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project in New York City, a nonprofit legal clinic that seeks to identify and free people who have been wrongly convicted.

Judge Kahl overturned Mr. Webster's conviction for raping a teacher in 1982 in Towson and granted him a new trial. When prosecutors told the judge they would not pursue the case further, Mr. Webster hugged his attorneys.

“We didn't have this technology 20 years ago,” said John Cox, an assistant state's attorney. “Our intention has always been to seek justice, and once this came to our attention, we moved as fast as we could.”

Michele Nethercott of the Maryland Public Defender's Office began working on Mr. Webster's case in 2000, when he asked for help in proving his innocence.

The DNA records, held by police, had been destroyed. But Miss Nethercott dug further and found three slides of potential DNA evidence preserved from a sexual-assault evaluation of the victim at the pathology department at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.

Miss Nethercott last month received results of DNA testing on the slides that showed the semen couldn't have come from Mr. Webster. Last week, the State's Attorney's Office got the results of its own testing, which confirmed Mr. Webster's innocence.

Public defender Stephen Harris said Mr. Webster will have a difficult time adjusting to life outside prison. He may be able to live with a foster sister, but she has not seen him for 20 years, Mr. Harris said.

“The hard part starts now. He went in at 19. He doesn't have anyone. He has no resources that we know of,” Mr. Harris said of the young-looking Mr. Webster with a broad, muscular figure and shaved head.

“To go in at 19 with a 10th-grade education and then compound that with 20 years in prison, it's unfathomable. I don't see how you deal with this as a person.”

Mr. Webster was sentenced to 30 years in prison 25 years for the rape conviction and five years for the burglary conviction. Because of good-behavior credits, he was to have been released in February.

The victim told the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday that she was upset and didn't want to talk to a reporter.

“You can't imagine it. You just can't,” she said.

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