Wrongly convicted Oklahoma man becomes friends with accuser

NORMAN, Okla. – An Oklahoma man spent 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Now, he has reconciled with the woman who sent him to prison and formed an unlikely friendship.

The crime happened back in 1982 when an OU college student was raped in her apartment.

After the victim picked him out of a lineup, Thomas Webb was arrested and convicted of rape, burglary, oral sodomy and grand larceny.

He always maintained his innocence, even sending the victim a letter saying she made a terrible mistake and that she had chosen the wrong man.

He served 14 years of his 60 year sentence before being exonerated by DNA in 1996.

The victim told NBC News that she felt incredibly guilty after being told she sent the wrong man to jail.

“I truly thought I was right for so many years, that he was my monster,” the woman told NBC News. “It was Thomas, and it wasn’t anyone else.”

When Webb was released from prison, the woman went to talk with a local pastor.

“I told him I just needed God’s mercy,” she said. “I needed forgiveness and mercy.”

After he was released, Webb had trouble adapting to life as a free man, he told NBC News.

He started drinking, doing drugs, and missing work.

“I had expected that all I needed to do was just get out, and then I can pick up where I started off,” he told NBC News. “But what I didn’t understand was that I didn’t know how to live life. I had lost the ability to cope.”

Webb ended up homeless.

“I didn’t fit in the world that I was trying to run from, and I didn’t fit in the world that I was running toward, either,” he said.

Webb said he reached his lowest moment in the fall of 2012 and started praying.

“I need help. Help me,” he said. “I need to be able to do something different. I don’t want this to be the end.”

He applied for disability and public housing.

In January 2013, he started a 12-step recovery program for addicts, NBC News reports.

“That,” he said, “saved my life.”

Later that year, a reporter from Oklahoma Watch started looking into Webb’s wrongful conviction and wondered if the actual rapist had ever been caught.

“Shaun made a call to the Norman police to ask very simply – did you ever go back and find the real rapist?” Oklahoma Watch editor, David Fritze, told KFOR in July 2014.

A Norman detective went back and reviewed the case, looking through DNA evidence that exonerated Webb and found that a DNA match was actually made back in 2006.

“Apparently, the OSBI notified the prosecutor’s office,” said Captain Tom Easley with the Norman Police Department. “But Norman police department was not copied. And it’s at that point that the trail goes dead.”

After the call from the Oklahoma Watch reporter, Norman police reopened their investigation and using the DNA match from 2006, traced the suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, to Biloxi, Mississippi.

Harris was arrested and brought to Norman to face trial.

In February 2015, Webb was scheduled to speak to a local high school about his wrongful conviction.

When the victim heard he was speaking at the school, she decided it was time to meet him.

“I didn’t want to die and not ever meet Thomas and just tell him how sorry I was,” she recalled to NBC News.

The woman approached him in the auditorium and asked if she could talk with him.

“Thomas, I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s OK,” he told her. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.”

The two then hugged and cried, a moment they both say meant everything to them.

Later that night, Webb called the woman and they spoke on the phone for hours, NBC News reports.

They decided they would go to Harris’ preliminary hearing together.

“I thought that possibly the one who caused all these problems and caused all this pain and suffering would get a little taste of it himself,” Webb said.

But justice was not served.

Despite DNA evidence linking Harris to the crime, a judge dismissed the case.

The statute of limitations had run out and Harris was a free to do whatever he wanted.

Webb told NBC News that although he cannot forget the freedom that was stolen from him, he finds comfort in his new job and simple routines.

He told an NBC reporter that he and the woman who sent him to prison in 1982 still meet for lunch breaks

“She’s able to move on with her life now instead of being stuck in fear and guilt because of me, and I’m able to be free from the resentment, the anger, the disappointment,” Webb said.

“He is a good man,” she said.

Read more on Webb’s story and his unlikely friendship with his accuser on NBC News.