Robert Nelson became a free man on June 12 for the first time since going to prison in the mid-1980s.
Nelson, 49 years old when he left the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Cameron on a clear summer Wednesday, was convicted in 1984 of a December 16, 1983, break-in and gang rape of a 24-year-old woman on the 5600 block of Bellefontaine Avenue.
Laura O'Sullivan, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project, said Nelson was done in by mistaken identity and slipshod legal work by his original trial attorney.
Nelson was tentatively picked out of a police lineup by the victim after she had been unable to pick out a suspect from a series of mug shots. Nelson was charged alongside his older brother for the crime; his brother's case was later dismissed before trial because of a lack of evidence.
The Midwest Innocence Project held a news conference on Friday along with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to announce that Nelson was the 1,136th person exonerated from DNA testing. He had been sentenced to 58 years in prison on the rape charge; the clock for that sentencing started only in 2006 after previous sentences on separate robbery charges had expired.
"It's never too late to find justice in all of its forms," Baker said.
DNA preserved from crime scenes can free long-ago convicted prisoners, and it can also put longstanding suspects in the vice of the law, even 30 years after the fact.
Such is the case for Jerry Haley, a 48-year-old who now faces robbery and forcible rape charges in Jackson County for the same crime for which Nelson was now found innocent.
In 2012, the Kansas City Police Crime Laboratory matched DNA evidence taken from the rape victim's bathrobe to Haley's genetic profile through a database of previous offenders.
His bond is set at $350,000.
Nelson did not appear at the Midwest Innocence Project's press conference.
"This is a huge transition for him," O'Sullivan said. "He needs to spend time with his family."