Gerard Richardson shares a laugh with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin prior to a hearing, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, in Somerville, N.J. Richardson was exonerated after being imprisoned for 20 years for a murder he did not commit.
(Photo: Jason Towlen, The Bridgewater, N.J., Courier News)
SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- The last time Gerard Richardson walked out of a courtroom, his hands were cuffed and his legs were shackled.
On Tuesday, after spending nearly 20 years in prison for a murder that he has insisted he didn't commit, he walked out of the Somerset County Courthouse a free man.
Richardson, 48, was given his first taste of freedom in October, when a state Superior Court judge agreed to overturn his 1995 conviction and 30-year prison sentence and free him on $5,000 bail.
But on Tuesday he was able to go home to his family with no charges hanging over his head. Assistant Prosecutor Timothy Van Hise, the prosecutor who put Richardson behind bars two decades ago, agreed to dismiss the murder indictment against the only suspect the state had in the brutal murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose half-naked body was dumped in Bernards in 1994.
While Richardson is finally free to move on, the case and the legal issues it has raised are far from over.
Attorneys from the Innocence Project, the nonprofit legal organization that took on Richardson's cause last year, say they plan to meet with the state Attorney General's Office to see that the real killer is brought to justice.
The organization's founder, Barry Scheck, already has asked the state to review other cases where bite-mark comparisons were used to convict suspects. Since the 1990s, a growing number of experts have cast doubt on the reliability of this kind of analysis, which was used to match a bite mark on Reyes' body to a cast of Richardson's teeth. The bite mark was the only piece of physical evidence used in trial. A private lab's DNA test of a swab of the bite mark cleared Richardson, paving the way for his exoneration.
Scheck also is supporting legislation that would allow the state to add DNA profiles created by private firms to the FBI's database of 10 million DNA profiles.
"We don't want it to stop here. We want to see justice done. There is a victim and her family, and we want to make sure that all avenues are pursued," he said.
Van Hise made no comment during the hearing and declined to speak with a reporter afterward.
During the brief afternoon hearing attended by Richardson's brother, sister and brother-in-law, Judge Julie Marino told Richardson that it is hard for anyone to imagine what he went through.
"I wish I had words of wisdom and inspiration and I don't. I do know that today is akin to a birthday for you," she said. "If you went forward letting what has happened be the defining moment of your life I don't think that anybody would fault you for that. But I hope that what's ahead of you becomes the defining moments in your life ... and this becomes an anecdote in your life."
Richardson's attorney, Vanessa Potkin, said Marino's words "meant a lot to Gerard and his family" even though they would like the state to apologize.
Richardson has been living with his brother, Kevin, 50, in Pennsylvania, and says he's considering going back to school. He's looking forward to spending more time with his family, which includes three daughters, three sons and 10 grandchildren.
While in prison he mentored and tutored younger inmates. He said he once was "bitter" about what happened, but "I had to let it go and move on."
"I'm definitely a changed man. I've grown up a whole lot. So many things I've been through, but I made it through, so I know I've got to be a changed man," he said after the hearing. "I know there are bigger things planned for me; I just have to go and get it."
Sergio Bichao, The (Bridgewater, N.J.) Courier News