DETROIT (WJBK) - It was 41 years ago when Ledura Watkins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn't commit. On Thursday, he stepped away from the prison bars and chains for the first time in almost half of a century.
Ledura Watkins was 19-years-old in 1976. That's when he was convicted of the crime after an an FBI expert witness testified that one hair taken from the victim's pants was microscopically similar, and could have come from Mr. Watkins.
He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. On Thursday, that all changed.
"It's really surreal, ya know? It's kind of unbelievable but I'm feeling great," Watkins said.
He was greeted by cheers and supporters, like Marla Mitchell-Cichon, the director of WMU-Cooley Innocence Project.
"Are you kidding me how happy I am. That's an easy question - I could not be happier,"
Watkins was convicted 41 years ago when an FBI expert witness testified that one hair taken from the victim's pants was microscopically similar, and could have come from Watkins.
Only 19 at the time, he was convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
"That evidence is completely false and unreliable," Mitchell-Cichon said.
Watkins said that, despite spending more than four decades in prison, he always expected to be vindicated.
"I expect for this to happen. I didn't think it would take 41 plus years," he said.
The hair that led to his conviction ultimately led to his freedom. Prof. Norman Fell, Executive Director of the Western Michigan University innocence Project said that new testing helped free Watkins.
"The testing procedures at the time did not exist or they were not as sophisticated as they are now," Fell said.
With the old DNA testing from 1976 deemed unreliable, the FBI agreed that someone convicted on bad scientific evidence is not right, even if that hair, has long been destroyed.
"In 1975 there was no reliable, credible evidence against Mr. Watkins. (The one hair) could've been yours," Mitchell-Cichon said.
Under a new law enacted in the state of Michigan, Watkins could be eligible for up to $50,000 per year for every year he spent in prison. That would be more than $2 million.
"This is the next phase. The bill has passed and it would seem that he's eligible," Fell said.
Watskins is the longest-serving exoneree in Michigan's history. Now, on his first night as a free man, he has big plans.
"Tonight we're going to try to eat some Chinese," he said. "I want my mother. So, with that, I want to go. I'll get back with you all later."