BUFFALO, NY — Cory Epps, the man accused of killing Tomika Means in 1997, has had his conviction vacated and was released from prison today.
“My wife kept my head up, she kept by my side and she believed in me,” said Epps, as he exchanged hugs and kisses with relatives. “This is what kept me up….my whole family’s support,” Epps said.
Epps said the first thing he would do would go get a burger with his family, and thank his lawyers from the Exoneration Initiative, a non-profit group from New York City, which worked to gain his freedom.
"They were relentless...I love them to death," said Epps. "They are freedom fighters, and I respect them."
Means was shot while she was sitting in a car on East Delavan and Chelsea Place on May 26, 1997. The witness in the case was a passenger in the car. The witness told police after a few choice words, the man drew the revolver, pointed it at Means and shot her in the face. Means died the next day.
Prosecutors said the killer was merely experiencing a fit of road rage, looking for payback after a near-accident on the streets a few blocks back.
Epps' conviction was based only on a witness' account of the shooting.
STORY: Memory on the Witness Stand
The witness, who is not being named, believed she saw a man named Cory Epps on the morning of May 26, 1997, which led to an arrest, an indictment and eventually a conviction. Epps was sentenced to 25 years-to-life. He was 26 years old when police arrested him. Now, he's middle-aged.
Twenty years later, the Exoneration Initiative, began focusing on Epps' case. "Memory is a funny thing," said Rebecca Freedman, the Assistant Director of the Exoneration Initiative. "Cory is undoubtedly innocent."
“That’s the process of a justice system that is sometimes unjust for other purposes," said Epps. But it doesn't take the truth away just because something is broken. Now 20 years later, it’s fixed, and it’s starting to fix itself. That is what I’m focused on now."
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said that recently discovered evidence, and a new witness, were largely responsible for his office agreeing to a hearing into whether Epps should have his sentence vacated and be granted his release.
"The information the new witness provided clearly showed someone else is potentially responsible for this murder," confirmed Flynn.
While limited in the details he released, Flynn revealed that, "as far as the person we believe is responsible for this, if you were to look at a photograph of him and one of Cory Epps, you would find them to be eerily similar...like twins."
Flynn added: "The individual we believe responsible for teh murder is currently in jail on another homicide, serving 25 years to life."
With the suspect he's now eyeing already serving time for murder, Flynn says he'll take time before he attempts to file charges, in order to build the strongest case that he can.
"While I firmly believe this person to be responsible, whether I can prove it in court beyond a reasonable doubt I can't say at this time," said Flynn, while refusing to name the person.
As to whether he will file a lawsuit to seek damages from his wrongful conviction, Epps said, “I want to talk to my lawyers about that situation. I just don’t want to get into the details of that right now”
As for his future, Epps said he will dedicate his life to helping others wrongfully convicted.
"I’m focused on helping other people in my same situation. That's one of the fights I’m going to fight,“ he said.