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Free at last: Five headline-making exonerations

By CNN Staff
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
  • Cleared in the murder of his wife, Michael Morton walked free after nearly 25 years
  • Brian Banks now plays for the NFL after he was exonerated of rape charges
  • Ex-police captain Douglas Prade was wrongly accused of killing his wife; now he's free
  • James Bain says, "I'm not angry," after serving 35 years for a crime he didn't commit

Editor's note: The dramatic exoneration of falsely accused murderer Michael Morton is the subject of CNN Films' "An Unreal Dream, The Michael Morton Story," airing at midnight ET and 9 p.m. PT Thursday on CNN TV.

(CNN) -- The exact number of exonerated American prisoners is unknown. But data gathered by university law schools indicates it's more than 2,000. Fascinating details surrounding some of these exonerations set them apart from the rest. Here are five recent exonerations that made headlines.

1. Michael Morton

The subject of a CNN film, Michael Morton wasn't home when his wife, Christine, was beaten to death in front of their 3-year-old son at their Austin, Texas-area home in 1986. But a prosecutor said the evidence suggested otherwise. The problem was, the jury was prevented from hearing all the evidence in the case.

Wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, a team of loyal supporters and DNA evidence helped Morton win his freedom in 2011. Last month, Morton's former prosecutor pleaded no contest to a court order to show cause regarding evidence that was not used in the trial.

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Read more about Michael Morton's story

2. Brian Banks and the incredible twist

At age 17, fearing a potentially long sentence, college football hopeful Brian Banks followed the advice of his attorney and pleaded no contest to assaulting a Long Beach, California, high school classmate in 2002.

Banks maintained his innocence throughout nearly six years of imprisonment, subsequent probation and registration as a sex offender.

But in 2011, the case took an incredible twist when the alleged victim sent Banks a Facebook friend request.

According to the California Innocence Project, the woman later admitted that Banks had not kidnapped or raped her during a consensual encounter at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where Banks was a middle linebacker with a scholarship offer from the University of Southern California.

Read more about Banks' story

3. Douglas Prade and the bite marks

In 1997, former Akron, Ohio, police captain Douglas Prade was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, Margo Prade, a popular doctor. Her gunshot-riddled body was found in her vehicle in her office parking lot.

No murder weapon was found and prosecutors produced no witnesses to the killing. The main evidence against Prade was a bite mark on the victim's arm and lab coat that a prosecution expert matched to Prade's teeth.

DNA tests conducted at the time were inconclusive.

Graph: Freed via DNA testing  Graph: Freed via DNA testing
Graph: Freed via DNA testingGraph: Freed via DNA testing

With help from the University of Cincinnati's Innocence Project, Prade appealed the conviction. In 2010, Prade won an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that allowed retesting of DNA evidence using newer methods. When the results came back, none of the DNA evidence could be matched to Prade.

Read more about Prade's case

4. Clarence Harrison and the wristwatch

If police had never heard about a wristwatch that Clarence Harrison had for sale, perhaps he never would have been wrongly convicted of rape. He never would have lost 17 years serving time in a Georgia prison.

In 1986 a woman was raped and her wristwatch was stolen, according to the Innocence Project. Neighbors told police that Harrison lived near the victim and that he had a wristwatch for sale. Police searched Harrison's home and didn't find the watch. But the victim identified Harrison in a photo lineup as her attacker. Blood tests pointed to Harrison as the possible attacker. But the testing was incorrect, the Innocence Project later said.

It wasn't until 2004 that DNA testing proved Harrison could not have committed the crime. Harrison was freed.

More about Harrison

5. James Bain, longest serving exoneree

Of the hundreds of U.S. prisoners exonerated by DNA tests, none has served more time behind bars than James Bain, according to the Innocence Project. Now free, Bain will never regain the 35 years he spent in Florida's prison system.

In 1974, a 9-year-old boy was taken from his bedroom and raped on a baseball field in Lake Wales, Florida. The boy later told police his attacker had bushy sideburns and a mustache. After being shown five photos of potential suspects, the victim picked out a photo of Bain, according to a police report.

Bain was 19 when he was convicted on charges of kidnapping, burglary and strong-arm rape. He received a life sentence.

In 2001, Florida passed a statute allowing cases to be reopened for DNA testing. Four times Bain submitted handwritten motions seeking such testing. Each time he was denied. After an appeals court ruled he was entitled to a hearing, Bain's fifth motion was successful. Finally, after DNA testing proved negative, Bain was set free in 2009.

He was 54 years old.

"I'm not angry," Bain told reporters.

Read more about Bain's case

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