(CNN)Clifford Williams Jr. was 34 and his nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers, was 18 back in May 1976.
They were at a party in Jacksonville, Florida, when two women were shot in a nearby apartment, one of them fatally. The men were quickly arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
On Thursday, the state threw out their convictions and set them free.
Williams and Myers shook hands and shared a long hug before emotionally joining family members gathered in the courtroom, affiliate WFOX reported. Myers kissed the ground outside.
"I'm nervous because I feel like I'm still locked up," he said. "Once I get with my family and know I can look back ... and the reality hits in, I think I'll be all right."
No defense witnesses or evidence
The woman who survived the shooting told police that Williams and Myers emptied their guns from the foot of the bed she shared with the murdered woman.
But evidence showed the shots were all fired outside, and from the same gun.
Still, Williams and Myers were convicted of murder and attempted murder after a two-day trial. Their attorneys presented no evidence or witnesses, although partygoers reported being with the men when everyone heard the shots that night.
The pair always maintained their innocence, throughout the trial and the next 42 years they spent behind bars. They filed multiple failed motions for "postconviction relief," prosecutors said.
Things began to change when they petitioned the Conviction Integrity Review unit, which the state attorney created in 2017.
Among the findings: Another man reportedly confessed to people that he committed the murders and felt bad Williams and Myers were imprisoned for it, the Conviction Integrity Review investigation report said. That man died in 1994.
The new unit's review led to the first-of-its-kind result, with the cases being tossed.
The Conviction Integrity Review unit determined that "it no longer has confidence in the integrity of the convictions," according to a press release from State Attorney Melissa W. Nelson.
Williams, now 76, and Myers, 61, were wrongfully convicted in the murder of Jeanette Williams (no relation) and attempted murder of Nina Marshall, Nelson's office said.
Marshall died in 2001.
Judge Angela Cox vacated their convictions, and the state dismissed the indictments.
'A continuing ... obligation to pursue justice'
"I lost almost 43 years of my life that I can never get back," Myers said in a report from the state attorney. "But I am looking ahead and will focus on enjoying my freedom with my family."
The state attorney established the conviction review unit in 2017 and began reviewing Myers' petition in 2018. Prosecutors say this is the first time an investigation by the unit has led to a release.
"We have a continuing, post-conviction ethical obligation to pursue justice when we become aware of material evidence suggesting a conviction is not correct," Nelson said.