NEWTON, N.C. — A three judge panel exonerated a Catawba County man who spent 24 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Willie Grimes, 66, insisted he was innocent and Friday, the state of North Carolina agreed.
"Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, thank Jehovah, Willie James Grimes is free at last," said Judge David Lee.
Twenty-five years after he was accused of kidnapping and rape, Grimes finally heard the words he has been waiting for.
"The defendant, Willie James Grimes, the convicted person has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he is innocent.” said Lee.
Grimes spent 24 years in prison for the crimes, but said he never lost hope.
"It's been a long time coming but I knew it would come sooner or later. That's the reason I couldn't give up," said Grimes.
Grimes was paroled in May, but fought to clear his name. This week, the North Carolina Innocence Commission heard his case. In closing arguments, prosecutors said they supported his exoneration.
"On behalf of the district attorney's office and the state of North Carolina, I want to offer an apology to Willie Grimes," said Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither.
The victim's granddaughters say they are glad Grimes had a chance to prove his innocence.
"We've already told him we're sorry. And we'll tell him again," said Teresa Hamlet.
Grimes does not hold a grudge against the people who put him behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
"No, I'm not mad at them. They did their job," said Grimes.
But his relatives have a different opinion.
"If they had done a good job, this problem never would have had to come about," said Grimes' sister Gladys Perkins.
Grimes said he is not sure what he will do with his new freedom beyond making sure his name is not tarnished any longer.
“First thing I want to do is go get my name off of that sex offense," said Grimes.
Grimes now becomes the fourth North Carolinian to be exonerated by the innocence commission since the General Assembly created it in 2007.