Innocent man freed 20 years after being wrongfully convicted of attempted murder

Years of maintaining his innocence paid off for a former California inmate who was released from prison this week after serving two decades for a crime he did not commit.

Marco Contreras is a free man as of Tuesday, when a judge in Southern California ruled him innocent of the attempted murder of Jose Garcia, who was robbed and shot at a Compton gas station in 1996.

"The court finds the petitioner to be factually innocent," Judge William Ryan said, some 20 years after Contreras was wrongfully imprisoned for life.

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The joyful moment was the culmination of years of work by Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent.

Cameras rolled as Contreras embraced his mother for the first time as a free man and told the world that he never feared he'd spend his life in prison.

"I just had to be patient and wait," said Contreras.

As attorneys re-evaluated the case, they zeroed in on an erroneous eyewitness identification that ultimately led to Contreras' conviction, despite his assertion that he was asleep after a graveyard shift as a security guard.

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PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 11: Undocumented immigrant Jose Reyes Robledo, 42, Mexico poses for a portrait as he serves time in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. He said he has lived in Phoenix and previously San Diego as an undocumented immigrant for 20 years. He is married with three children and was born in the United States. He was arrested and charged in Maricopa County on July, 2012 for armed robbery with a deadly weapon. As an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record, he may likely be deported to Mexico after serving his jail sentence. President Barack Obama's administration deported a record 1.5 million people during his first term of office with 55 percent of deportees in 2012 having a criminal conviction for drug offenses or driving under the influence, according to U.S. immigration officials. The Maricopa County Tent City jail, run by county Sheriff Joe Arpaio, maintains a controversial policy of issuing striped uniforms and pink undergarments to inmates, despite an ongoing court challenge. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Raymondville, UNITED STATES: A Homeland Security Officer(L) talks with detainees inside Homeland Security's Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants, 10 May 2007 in Raymondville, Texas. The 65 million USD facility was constructed as part of the Secure Border Initative last July and now where many of the former 'catch and release' illegals are detained for processing. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

A probe by the sheriff's department subsequently determined that Contreras was not only innocent but it also led to the arrest of another suspect.

"Newly discovered evidence suggests that a person other than Marco is guilty of the attempted murder of Jose Garcia," Chief Deputy District Attorney John K.

Spillane wrote in a letter to the judge prior to his ruling. Contreras, who pointed to his spirituality when recounting how he got through all those years behind bars, told reporters he intends to restart his life by spending time with family and with a good Mexican dinner.

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