Henry James was speechless when one of his attorneys told him he would be freed from prison Friday after 30 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.
James said it felt like a miracle when the lawyer called Thursday to tell him a judge had vacated his 1982 rape conviction and ordered him released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
"I was shocked," he said during an interview at the offices of The Innocence Project New Orleans. "After 30 years, you're finally getting a chance at justice."
Justice came at a dizzying pace for James, who was convicted of raping a woman in 1981 but cleared last month by DNA tests. Before the judge ruled, James was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole. On Friday, he was savoring freedom and a shrimp po'boy with sweet potato fries.
James, who turned 50 last week, said he endured plenty of dark days in prison but never gave up hope.
"You can't let go," he said. "You lose hope, you lose everything."
State District Judge Henry G. Sullivan vacated his conviction at the request of Jefferson Parish prosecutors and James' lawyers from The Innocence Project.
"This process is about justice," District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. said in a statement. "As district attorney, my obligation to seek justice does not end upon conviction. Rather, my obligation is to continue to follow the evidence. When the evidence reveals an individual was wrongfully convicted my office will take action to correct that injustice."
James served the longest prison sentence of any of the 12 Louisiana inmates who have been cleared by DNA tests, according to his lawyers.
James always maintained he was innocent of raping a woman who was an acquaintance and lived near him in Westwego, which is just south of New Orleans.
His lawyers say he had interacted with the woman several times and was with her husband during most of the day before the attack, helping him repair his car. James was with the woman's husband when he was arrested following a car accident. That evening, he went to the woman's house and told her about her husband's arrest, according to James' attorneys.
The woman was raped at knifepoint the following morning. She initially told police she didn't know her attacker, but she later picked James out of a lineup, according to his attorneys.
James testified at his trial and presented three witnesses to back up his alibi that he was sleeping at the time of the rape. The Innocence Project said James' trial lawyer failed to tell jurors that bodily fluid testing had excluded James as the attacker.
Years later, after exhausting his appeals, James wrote to The Innocence Project and asked for help. When his new lawyers sought to perform DNA tests on evidence from the rape kit in the case, the Jefferson Parish crime laboratory initially couldn't find any. But a lab worker found a slide from James' case in May 2010 while looking for evidence in a different case.
Last month, a final report on the results of court-ordered DNA tests excluded James as the perpetrator.
"It is an actual miracle that Henry James is here today," said Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. "It was a miracle that his evidence was found."
James plans to live in New Orleans with a daughter who was 3 years old when he went to prison. He hopes to parlay woodworking skills he learned in prison into a job.
Angola was a mess, James said.
"It's got so many people who will kill your spirit if you let them," he said.
But that won't stop him from returning. James said he wants to visit the prison later this month for an annual rodeo that draws thousands of spectators from across the state. He hopes to see some friends.
"They're good people and don't deserve to be there," he said.