By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - An Illinois man who served 29 years in prison for the rape and murder of a high school girl was freed on Wednesday after DNA evidence cleared him of any link to the crime, officials said.
Prosecutors said on Wednesday they had vacated charges against Christopher Abernathy, 48, who confessed in 1985 to killing Kristina Hickey, 15, in 1984 in Park Forest, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago. He was released after a court order, according to Illinois prison records.
Abernathy, who confessed to the crime when he was 18, may have suffered from a "diminished mental capacity," prosecutors said. They tested all available evidence in the case and found that Abernathy's DNA profile matched none of it.
"This is difficult for all parties including the victim's family, but I cannot and will not let a wrongful conviction stand," Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a statement.
At the time of the crime, law enforcement did not have the scientific ability to conduct DNA analysis that exists now, she said.
Alvarez started a "Conviction Integrity Unit" in 2012 to focus on reviewing cases involving questionable convictions. Thirteen defendants have since had their convictions vacated.
Such efforts are part of a national trend, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School.
The number of people exonerated in the United States in 2014 climbed to a record high 125, partly because of work by prosecutors willing to admit their mistakes, the registry found last month.
Abernathy, who had dated Hickey briefly, was initially questioned by police and released. He was rearrested a year later after police learned he had allegedly made admissions to a friend that he was involved in the murder.
After 30 hours in custody, Abernathy provided a handwritten confession. But Alvarez said his confession contained no significant details of the crime.
Alvarez said her office would begin a cold-case investigation into the murder, working with the Park Forest Police Department.
An attorney for Abernathy was not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Peter Cooney)