They were North Philly teenagers when they went to prison for life, with no chance of parole.
Now 34-year-old men, Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, learned Friday that they will soon be home, courtesy of a judge who ordered a new trial for a 1995 murder they say they did not commit, and the District Attorney's Office's decision to not oppose bail while reinvestigating the killing of Thomas Keal.
It was a turn that stunned their families and surprised their lawyers.
"That's not something you see in this building every day," said veteran Center City civil-rights lawyer David Rudovsky, who represented Gilyard.
Jules Epstein, the Widener University law professor representing Felder, was ebullient. Both lawyers represented the men for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which two years ago began looking into their claims of innocence.
Gilyard and Felder are not completely free. Each must sign his own $20,000 bail bond and be electronically monitored at home. But it will be a dramatic change from the remote state prisons each has called home for 15 years.
Friday's hearing was supposed to be for prosecutors to announce whether they would appeal an Oct. 8 ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi ordering a new trial.
Calling the original trial evidence against Gilyard and Felder "extremely weak," DeFino-Nastasi ruled that another jury might well acquit them.
Assistant District Attorneys Laurie Williamson and Brian Zarallo said they would not appeal and also would not oppose bail while reinvestigating.
"Eugene is going to be ecstatic," cried out Gilyard's mother, Christine Gilyard Ellison. He will live with her when he gets out of the state prison in Mahanoy City, near Pottsville.
"I am so happy; it was such a surprise," added Felder's sister, Sandra. Lance Felder, now in Graterford Prison, will live with her upon release.
Neither man was in court Friday, and lawyers said it would likely take several days to complete arrangements for electronic monitoring at home.
In approving the release, DeFino-Nastasi warned relatives not to try contacting witnesses in the case.
Zarallo, a deputy chief of the Homicide Unit overseeing the reinvestigation, said the decision to not oppose bail was proper under the circumstances.
"A tremendous amount of new information led us to this point," Zarallo said. "We agreed to bail while a full, unbiased investigation is ongoing."
Marissa B. Bluestine, legal director of the Temple University-based Innocence Project, said she wanted to use the house-arrest period to "prepare them for reentry."
Keal, 52, who owned a North Philadelphia bar and seafood store, was killed Aug. 31, 1995, after being confronted by two armed men at 17th Street and Erie Avenue. When Keal resisted demands for money and went for his weapon, one robber shot him in a leg and the other shot him in the head.
In a neighborhood plagued by violent drug gangs, no witnesses came forth. The case went cold.
Gilyard and Felder were not arrested until January 1998, and then on the basis of a shaky photo identification by Keal's daughter. Tonya Keal briefly saw her father's shooting from her apartment above his seafood store. Hers was the only evidence against the men.
The original case began crumbling after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project took on the pair's request for a new trial. Investigators found new evidence, including a confession to Keal's slaying by another man.
Gilyard and Felder always insisted they were innocent, and Gilyard told police he knew the men who killed Keal by their street names, "Rolex" and "Tizz."
It was in June 2011 that Innocence Project investigators obtained a statement from an inmate serving life for an unrelated murder. Ricky "Rolex" Welborn confessed that he and another man had tried to rob and shot Keal. Welborn said Gilyard and Felder had nothing to do with it.
Welborn has not been charged.