After 6 years of hardship and doubt, former Leander High School football star Greg Kelley wiped back tears Wednesday morning in Williamson County District Court as he gave thanks to God, his family and all of his supporters following his official exoneration from his 2014 conviction for super-aggravated sexual assault involving a child.
"I've never felt so free," Kelley declared following Judge Donna King's ruling.
The courtroom exploded in rousing applause following King saying, "I declare you innocent, and you are fully exonerated."
She apologized for the "systematic failure" that lead to his conviction, saying "I was convinced that the guilty conviction was unjust." She concluded her ruling by doing something she has never done before - striking her gavel to underscore her ruling.
"In the system of justice, the gavel has importance. It signifies what was is no longer and at this time the state's motion to dismiss the indictment is granted – what was is no longer."
Because he was officially exonerated, Kelley will now be able to seek a $80,000 per year in compensation for his three years in prison under the the Texas Wrongful Incarceration Act.
Kelley walked out elated, stating his faith in God helped him through his ordeal.
Kelley was convicted in 2014 of super-aggravated sexual assault of a child but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction on Nov. 6. Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick faulted major failures in the case by all parties involved, including the Cedar Park Police Department. Kelley's lawyers argued the department's investigation was so shoddy that Kelley was essentially denied fair treatment by the judicial system.
In the subsequent investigation, at least two additional suspects have been identified.
Dick said the ruling shows the truth of whether Kelley should have been convicted in the first place.
"Unfortunately we were unable to get to the ultimate answer of what happened to the child," Dick said.
Kelley and Dick both expressed deep concern that Kelley's conviction and long incarceration caused severe harm to future investigations into what happened to the victim because so much has passed since the crime occurred.
Kelley apologized to the family of the victims, tearfully declaring he felt guilty over how his wrongful conviction may impacted their ability to find justice.
"To the victim and his family, I'm absolutely sorry you have to go through this. Believe me, your opinion matters. For six years, I not only had to prove to the state I didn't do this, but I had to prove to you that I didn't do this," Kelley said. "The justice system failed me and you. Today, I received justice while you remain failed. All victims deserve justice the first time around."
Kelley reiterated Wednesday his call for the firing of Cedar Park Sean Mannix, who served as chief when the investigation was conducted, and Sgt. Chris Dailey, the lead investigator in his case.
"My due process was violated," Kelley said. "No one should ever question if their voice should or would be heard."
Cedar Park Police spokeswoman Alicia Inns said Wednesday the department does not plan to release a statement following the ruling.
Mannix's only response to the incident so far was a statement released after Kelley's Nov. 6 ruling that exonerated him.
"I respect (the Nov. 6) ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals granting Greg Kelley’s application for relief," he said. "As Justice Newell’s concurring opinion indicates, this relief was based on new evidence post-conviction, and not on the grounds of deprivation of due process or ineffective assistance of counsel.
"Make no mistake, I have heard the criticisms surrounding this case and taken actions to address them. I want to reassure our citizens that the department remains steadfast in our commitment to ensure community safety and public trust. It’s a responsibility and privilege I take very seriously."
Looking forward, Kelley said he is looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with his family, marrying his fiance early next year and seeking to return to his football career as he tries to put this chapter of his life behind him.
"I can't wait to spend the rest of my life creating memories with people I hold near and dear to my heart," Kelley said.