TULSA, Okla. - Thursday was a very emotional day for a man wrongly convicted of first-degree murder back in 2001.
Willard O’Neal had been behind bars pleading for courts to take another look at his case.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, O’Neal walked out of the Tulsa County Jail a free man.
After 17 years behind bars, O’Neal is celebrating with a big hug in his mother's arms.
“It's been a long time coming. My family has been beside me. All I can say is praise God, I'm free,” said Willard O’Neal.
O’Neal was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001 in the death of a Tulsa strip club owner.
In 2004, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but today in a Tulsa County courtroom, O’Neal pleaded no contest to a second-degree murder charge and time served.
“I'm lost for words really, I'm excited, I'm blessed,” said O’Neal.
O’Neal’s family was outside the courtroom and also outside the Tulsa County Jail on Thursday. They say they have been with O’Neal every step of the way.
“There was some dark times, there were some struggles but we knew that justice would be served so we just hung in there,” said O’Neal’s cousin, Linda Johnson.
“I’m just glad for him to be out today. We have been waiting on this day for a long time,” said Regina Edwards, O’Neal’s cousin.
O’Neal is free, thanks in part, to the efforts of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
In 2011, lawyers started to work on getting O’Neal free.
They tested DNA from the scene.
Officials determined O’Neal was not a contributor and his DNA was excluded from tested items.
The Innocence Project attorneys also argued the state’s main witness was unreliable, thanks to a plea deal she had agreed to with prosecutors.
“The only real evidence that tied Mr. O’Neal to this crime was a preliminary hearing transcript of one woman whose guns were the murder weapons in this case, and who we knew was potentially soliciting somebody to commit this murder in the weeks before,” said Vicki Behenna of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
Thursday’s no-contest plea was a deal offered by the D.A. in light of the new findings. It was reportedly O’Neal’s call not to push for a new trial.
“He’s in his early 50's now and the opportunity to be home and take care of his elderly mother is something that is very important to him,” said Behenna.
“I have been praying every since ’02, morning, noon, and night for this boy and God heard my prayer and he’s home,” said Elreno O’Neal, Willard’s mother.