The high-profile drama of a man who spent 18 years in prison for a Burlington County murder and rape he did not commit quietly came to an end after state officials paid him $1 million to settle a federal lawsuit.
Larry Peterson, now living in a Bucks County suburb, had been convicted of the Aug. 24, 1987, murder of Jacqueline Harrison, 25, of Pemberton Township. He was serving a 40-year sentence when his conviction was overturned in 2005.
Peterson sued after he was freed in 2006, three years after questions arose from forensic tests done in 2003, which his attorneys maintain conclusively prove his innocence.
The settlement brings an end to the legal wranglings between Peterson and state authorities who once sought to have him executed.
Still unknown is who killed Harrison.
Authorities have never said Peterson is innocent - only that they no longer have reliable evidence to retry him.
"It still weighs on him," said Peterson's Moorestown attorney, William Buckman, who confirmed this week that Peterson was given his settlement on Christmas Eve.
"He wanted to get this behind him," Buckman said. "How can you put a price on 18 years of your life spent in prison?"
Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the nonprofit Innocence Project in New York, which represented Peterson, called it "outrageous" that prosecutors fought to have the DNA tests done for seven years and still won't say Peterson is innocent.
"They left this cloud of doubt lingering over Larry's head, which makes it really hard to move on," Potkin said Thursday, adding that the compensation would help.
"Is that the price of two decades in prison?" Potkin said. "I think the State of New Jersey owes him a whole lot more for everything they took from him."
Peterson, now 59 and working as a courier, could not be reached for comment.
In 1987, Harrison - the mother of two - was beaten, raped, and strangled. Her body was found on a dirt road near a soybean field. A small branch had been shoved down her throat, and she had been sexually molested.
At the time, Peterson lived near the victim and worked in a local lumberyard. He always maintained his innocence.
During Peterson's trial, three witnesses testified that Peterson bragged about the slaying. A forensic expert concluded hairs found at the scene matched Peterson's hair.
At the time, the technology did not exist to analyze the semen found on Harrison, or the skin under her fingernails, and match that DNA to the attacker.
In 2003, the Innocence Project successfully petitioned to have the hair retested and other forensic evidence analyzed. Experts concluded that the hair used to convict Peterson actually belonged to the victim. They found that the semen had come from two men. One sample came from a consensual sexual partner.
Other physical evidence came from a person who remains unidentified. That's the person authorities should be looking for, Peterson's attorneys say.
Although a judge vacated Peterson's conviction in 2005, Peterson initially remained in jail after Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi announced Peterson would be retried.
Later, one of the state's key witnesses, Robert Elder, said he fabricated that Peterson had confessed and recalled key facts he overheard in police conversations.
Another witness also withdrew statements. The third witness was a jailhouse snitch. It's unclear whether that person was available to testify.
Bernardi dropped the charges.
"Having made a thorough evaluation of the evidence that now exists 17 years after the original conviction of Mr. Peterson, I am now satisfied that the status of the evidence is such that the state would not be able to sustain its burden of proof at the time of any retrial," Bernardi said in a May 2006 statement.
Joel Bewley, spokesman for the Prosecutor's Office, said Thursday that there would be no further comment. Bernardi had been named in Peterson's lawsuit as a defendant, but was removed last year before the settlement was reached.
The Attorney General's Office, which supported Bernardi and others named in Peterson's federal lawsuit, declined to comment Thursday.
Peterson's release from prison evoked strong feelings both from his and Harrison's family.
Harrison's mother, Elouise, who had raised her daughter's two children in Maryland, now in their 20s, said at the time that she was shocked by the news.
Peterson's mother, however, was elated. "Just by him being out and being with us, is wonderful," Peterson's mother, Susie, said during a recent interview as she described how the case took so many unexpected turns over the years.
"I always knew he was innocent but could not look into the future and tell what was going to happen."