ELIZABETH, N.J. - A Union County man who served two decades in prison for the rape and murder of two children got his convictions thrown out yesterday after an advanced DNA test showed that a neighbor may have been responsible.
State Superior Court Judge Stuart L. Peim granted a new trial because the evidence "would probably change the verdict" against Byron Halsey, 46.
Prosecutors and Halsey's lawyers requested that the convictions be overturned. Peim scheduled a July 9 hearing for prosecutors to announce whether they would seek a new trial.
The Union County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment.
During a five-minute hearing, Peim set bail at $55,000 and required Halsey to wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet when he is released.
Tears streamed down Halsey's face, but he did not speak in court.
Nearly four hours after the ruling, after paperwork and electronic monitoring was completed, Halsey stepped outside the Union County jail. After a quick embrace with one of his lawyers, he joined his mother and brother for long hug.
"I just want to thank Jesus," he said.
Minutes later, he was in front of television cameras at the steps of the courthouse. "I wasn't going to let anybody take my life," Halsey said. "I wasn't going to give up."
Halsey was convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting and murdering Tyrone and Tina Urquhart, his girlfriend's children, with whom he lived at a Plainfield rooming house.
The bodies of Tyrone, 8, and Tina, 7, were found in the home's basement in November 1985.
"The DNA shows that a neighbor in the rooming house is the source of the semen," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, which is representing Halsey.
That neighbor, Clifton Hall, 49, is in prison in Avenel for three sex crimes in the early 1990s, Ferrero said. Hall testified against Halsey at the trial.
"Today, we can say with scientific certainty that Byron Halsey is innocent. Every piece of physical evidence connects Cliff Hall, not Byron Halsey, to these murders," said Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. "It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case."
Potkin said Halsey could apply for compensation of $25,000 for each year he was in custody.
The Innocence Project got involved 2004 after Halsey wrote it.
"They tried DNA testing at the time of the trial on one piece of evidence, on the girl's underwear," Ferrero said. But it was inconclusive, since more sophisticated testing was several years away. So authorities tested the semen for blood type, which matched Halsey - but also matched Hall, Ferrero said.
The new DNA test matches Hall, whose DNA was on record because he is an offender, Ferrero said.
Margaret Urquhart, the mother of the victims, said in a statement issued through the Innocence Project that she always doubted that Halsey had committed the crime.
"I knew Byron loved Tyrone and Tina," Urquhart said. "It didn't make sense to me that he could have done this. I always had my doubts, but I didn't know what to do about them.