Associated Press

Updated DNA test frees NJ man convicted of killing two children

Associated Press Writer

May 15, 2007, 6:25 PM EDT

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- After 22 years behind bars for horrific crimes his lawyers say he didn't commit, Byron Halsey walked out of jail Tuesday on the fast track to freedom.

His first actions were those of affection, love and faith.

"I just want to thank Jesus," Halsey said, emerging from jail as he clung to his mother and brother.

Minutes later, he appeared in front of television cameras at the steps of the Union County Courthouse, where his lawyers persuaded a state judge to overturn his conviction in the 1985 rape and murder of two children.

"I wasn't going to let anybody take my life," Halsey said. "I wasn't going to give up."

But he said he was not joyful. "I'm not happy," he said. "Because of what was done to me."

Halsey, 46, faced the death penalty after being convicted in 1988 of murdering Tyrone and Tina Urquhart, the children of his girlfriend, with whom he lived at a Plainfield rooming house. The girl, 7, had been strangled and raped. The boy, 8, had four nails driven into his head with a brick and evidence of a sex assault. Their bodies were found in the basement of the rooming home in November 1985.

The jury chose life in prison, however, and Halsey was sentenced to two life terms, plus 20 years. He was held at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

The convictions were vacated Tuesday morning after an advanced DNA test showed that a neighbor may have been responsible for the crimes.

Union County prosecutors and lawyers for Halsey together requested that the convictions be overturned.

Superior Court Judge Stuart L. Peim said he would grant a retrial because the new evidence "would probably change the verdict." Tears streamed down Halsey's face.

Peim scheduled a July 9 hearing for prosecutors to announce whether they would pursue a new trial or drop the charges.

He set bail at $55,000, with electronic monitoring, and less than four hours later, Halsey walked out of the adjacent Union County Jail.

A spokeswoman for the Union County prosecutor's office, Eileen Walsh, said the office would not comment on how it will proceed.

Halsey's lawyers said they are confident the charges will be dropped.

"The DNA has proven him innocent, and he deserves to get on with his life," said Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, which represented Halsey. "It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case."

Potkin said Halsey can apply for compensation of $25,000 for each year he was in custody.

Margaret Urquhart, the mother of the victims, said in a statement issued through the Innocence Project that she always doubted that Halsey committed the crime.

"I knew Byron loved Tyrone and Tina," Urquhart said. "It didn't make sense to me that he could have done this. I always had my doubts, but I didn't know what to do about them. I'm thankful that the DNA testing has identified who really did this to my children and that Byron is being released today. I want justice done in this case."

Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, said new DNA evidence shows that a neighbor in the rooming house is the source of semen found at the crime scene.

That neighbor, Clifton Hall, 49, is now in prison after pleading guilty to three sex crimes in early 1990s. Hall testified against Halsey at Halsey's trial.

The Innocence Project got involved in 2004 after Halsey wrote them. "They tried DNA testing at the time of the trial on one piece of evidence, on the girl's underwear that was found stuffed in her mouth," Ferrero said. But it was inconclusive, since more sophisticated testing was several years away. So they tested the semen for blood type, which matched Halsey -- but also matched Hall, Ferrero said.

The new DNA test matches Hall, whose DNA was on record since he is an offender, Ferrero said. Hall is at a prison for sex offenders in Avenel. Efforts to locate his latest lawyer and get comment from Hall were not successful.

Halsey had made a confession before trial, but Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck said the statement followed 30 hours of interrogation over a 40-hour period.

"It would be a stretch to say that Byron Halsey even confessed to this crime given the state of mind he was in, the length of the interrogation, the tactics police used, and the words he actually said," Scheck said.

Scheck said that Halsey would be getting therapy and job training. He said the case is more evidence for the state Legislature to consider as it debates whether to abolish the death penalty.

"If ever there was a case when an innocent man could have been executed, it is this case," Scheck said.

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