CHICAGO -- After spending almost two decades in jail for a rape and murder he didn't commit, Robert Taylor walked out of an Illinois prison a free man Thursday with just one word to describe the feeling: Beautiful.
"I'm still getting used to it," he told The Associated Press by phone shortly after leaving Stateville Correctional Center. "I knew it would come."
Taylor, 34, was among three men serving prison time for the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old suburban Chicago girl whose convictions were vacated Thursday after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime. Five were convicted in total; prosecutors said they planned to vacate the convictions of the two others who've already served prison sentences.
The men were convicted as teenagers in the rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews of Dixmoor, which is about 20 miles south of Chicago. She disappeared after leaving her grandmother's house in November 1991 and her body was found weeks later near a highway with a gunshot wound to the mouth.
The murder went unsolved for about a year. Then in 1992, the teens were arrested. Two signed confessions and agreed to testify against the others for shorter prison sentences, even though attorneys said there were inconsistencies in their testimony and DNA evidence taken from the girl did not match any of the five teens.
Prosecutors reopened the case this year after new DNA testing linked a convicted rapist to the crime. He has not been charged in Matthew's killing, but remains under investigation and is serving prison time in Cook County for a drug offense, authorities said.
Those in the courtroom Thursday were stunned.
"It's truly unexplainable," said Taylor's attorney Josh Tepfer who works for Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. "It's one of the most tragic injustices in this state's history. It's five kids who were wrongfully convicted ... while a true perpetrator went on and lived a criminal lifestyle."
The prosecutors' move came after years of legal battles for the three men — Taylor, Jonathan Barr, 34, and James Harden, 36.
"He's lost his childhood. You can't put a price on that," said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project, who represented Barr. "He's angry at what happened, but he's forgiven and is moving on."
Barr and Harden, who are brothers, were both in custody at Menard Correctional Center and to be released once paperwork was completed.
"Their mother and father passed away while they were in prison," said Tara Thompson, a staff attorney with the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project, who represented Harden. "He missed the opportunity to go to college. Everything you've done in your life since high school, he's missed out on that."
Thursday's case, once dubbed "The Dixmoor Five," is among the dozens of wrongful conviction cases in Illinois made public in recent years. Allegations of torture and coerced confessions by Chicago police eventually helped lead then-Republican Gov. George Ryan in 2000 to impose a moratorium on Illinois' death penalty. Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.
Defense attorneys in the Dixmoor case blame a series of missteps on prosecutors and local police at the time, including allegedly coerced confessions.
"The fact that they accepted these false confessions is tunnel vision," Cooley said. "The fact that they couldn't look outside these confessions, and say, 'Wait a minute.'"
The teens, including the victim, all knew each other from school. Defense attorneys claim the teens who confessed were questioned relentlessly and at least in one case were told that they could see their parents if they signed confessions.
Robert Lee Veal, 34, and Shainne Sharp, 36, confessed and agreed to testify against the others in exchange for reduced 20-year prison sentences. Records show each served about 10 years.
Veal, who has "severe learning disabilities," could not read when he was arrested and signed a confession not knowing what it was, his attorney Stuart Chanen said.
Taylor also had confessed to the crime, but later recanted saying it was coerced. He and Harden were sentenced to 80 years in prison. Barr received 85 years.
Defense attorneys had asked for new DNA testing in 2009. New tests this year isolated a genetic profile from swabs taken from the victim. Illinois State Police uploaded it to a database which matched the profile of a man who was 33 at the time of the 1991 murder and had been convicted of a separate sexual assault.
Dixmoor police declined to comment Thursday.
"We conducted a very detailed and extensive investigation into the details of this case," said Cook County state's attorney's office spokeswoman Sally Daly.
Sharp is in custody at Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana on a drug offense, according to Indiana Department of Corrections records.
Veal, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., was very happy to hear the news, his attorney said.
While Veal has been out of prison since 2002, his wrongful conviction dramatically altered the course of his life. Unemployed, Veal spent a good chunk of his life behind bars at a time he might otherwise have been getting help for learning disabilities and he's had difficulty finding work, Chanen said.
"It's virtually impossible to get a job with a murder conviction, with being an ex-con ... on your rap sheet," said Chanen. "At least he gets the stench of that off his record."
Taylor said family support was his lifeline in prison. He was eager to see them again.
I'm always going to be angry, due to what was taken away from me. I can't get that back," he told AP. "I'm not going to let my anger drive what I want to do with the rest of my life. There is so much I want to do."
Associated Press writer Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen