A construction worker behind bars for nearly four years for a gang rape that never happened was cleared Thursday after his accuser admitted she lied to make her friends feel sorry for her.
William McCaffrey hugged his lawyer after the same judge who had sentenced him to 20 years in prison threw out the case and apologized.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," the soft-spoken McCaffrey, 32, said outside a Manhattan court. "I'm just glad it's over."
New DNA tests played a part, but his exoneration largely hinged on his accuser's recantation _ a rarity after rape convictions, the head of a national prosecutors' group said.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard Carruthers called the case "a catastrophe" for both the criminal justice system and McCaffrey, who was in jail or prison from his 2005 arrest to his release on $5,000 bail in September.
"I convey to you my personal regrets for having participated, though unknowingly, in the injustice," said Carruthers, who had called the purported attack "disgusting" during McCaffrey's 2006 sentencing.
Biurny Peguero, then 22, originally said three men, led by McCaffrey, raped her at knifepoint after luring her into their car after a night out in 2005. McCaffrey said she had agreed to go with them to a party, and they dropped her off unharmed after she changed her mind.
Peguero told her story to a grand jury, took the stand again McCaffery's trial and said at his 2006 sentencing that the "tragedy changed my life forever." He was convicted of charges including rape and kidnapping and got a 20-year prison term. No one else was convicted.
Defense lawyer Glenn A. Garber of the Exoneration Initiative, a New York-based group that provides free legal help challenging convictions, later persuaded prosecutors to use new technology to retest DNA samples from an apparent bite mark on Peguero's arm.
The initial tests were inconclusive. The new ones showed the genetic material not only wasn't McCaffrey's but came from at least two women, apparently friends of Peguero's who fought with her.
Separately, Peguero confessed her lie to a priest and then to authorities this year. She claimed she was raped because she wanted her friends "to feel badly" for her, and then was afraid to back down from her story as the case continued, prosecutors said in court filings this fall.
She thought McCaffrey ultimately would be acquitted because of a lack of other evidence, prosecutors said.
"People, you know, can manipulate the system, and this woman did in this case," Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said Thursday while discussing an unrelated case with reporters. "But she's paying a price for it."
Peguero, who now uses the name Biurny Gonzalez, pleaded guilty Monday to perjury. The mother of two _ the youngest born last month _ could face up to seven years in prison at her sentencing, set for February.
Her lawyer, Paul Callan, said she was "very, very happy" about McCaffrey's vindication.
"My client has been working diligently over the last seven months to see that this day would come," he said.
Statistics on the prevalence of recanted rape allegations vary widely, but most unravel before anyone is convicted, said Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association and the former DA of southwest Utah's Iron County.
Law enforcement officials and women's advocates have striven for decades to ensure sexual assault allegations are taken seriously, "so it's extremely damaging when this happens," Burns said.
McCaffrey told WABC-TV later Thursday that he hopes to become a paralegal and do volunteer work for the Exoneration Initiative.