UPDATE: Rockford man released after 23 years in prison is exonerated

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Updated: October 4, 2017

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- The Rockford man who spend 23 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit sees justice in court today.

John Horton is exonerated in the 1993 murder of a man at a local McDonald's. Horton claimed he had confessed to the murder following a 10-hour interrogation.

Lawyers for Horton from the Exoneration Project, say they know who committed the crime but say John is not the murderer.

Last year the Illinois Appellate Court overturned Horton's conviction allowing him to be released from prison earlier this year.

Updated: May 10, 2017

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- Three months ago today, a Rockford man walked out of jail on bond after spending 23 years there for a crime he says he didn't commit.

February 10, 2017 is a day John Horton will never forget.

"I walked out to an answered prayer," says Horton.

He was accused of killing a man in a local McDonald's in 1993 when he was 17-years-old. Although he confessed, he says he didn't commit the crime and only signed the confession because he was tired after a 10-hour interrogation.

"Wanting to come home, wanting to be with my children, wanting to be free, simply because I was innocent, that was what I held on to, but my hope was dwindling," he says.

It's been three months since the 41-year-old grandfather walked out of jail. He's now married and credits his faith and his wife Melissa for where he is today.

The two met 21 years ago when Horton called his cousin who was married to Melissa's friend at the time. The two have been in contact ever since.

"He was my best friend, he was my mentor, he was my soul mate from beginning to end," says Melissa.

With his wife by his side, Horton is focusing on his future. He says he wants to spend his days mentoring kids in our area.

"That is where my heart is. I feel like that's my calling."

He also says he's no longer angry about his time spent behind bars.

"Being angry, everyone said I was justified but I could plant nothing good to grow from it," Horton says.

Instead, he says he's blessed.

"I'm thankful to have this opportunity to get my life back and to build a future with her [Melissa], our children, my grandson."

Last year the Illinois Appellate Court overturned Horton's conviction for what they call the State's Failure to disclose evidence that could have potentially exonerated him.

Horton's attorney, Joshua Tepfer with the Exoneration Project, says Horton's conviction has been vacated by the Appellate Court, meaning he's presumed innocent. Tepfer says Horton is now awaiting a re-trial. It hasn't been scheduled and Horton's attorney says it could not be scheduled as the State could decided to drop charges anytime they want.

February 10, 2017

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- A Rockford man is released from prison 23 years after he's arrested for the murder of a man in a local McDonald's.

John Horton wasn't sure he'd ever see his family and friends outside the confines of prison.

"23 years and five months, you don't know what that day is going to look like," says John Horton. "I didn't know what it would look like, but I'll accept this."

Today he's grateful to be free, surrounded by his family and friends.

"It took a while but God didn't give up on me and those who love me didn't give up on me," says Horton.

The now 40-year-old was accused of killing a man at an area McDonald's back in 1993 when he was 17-years-old. Melissa Pappas was his girlfriend at the time. She says she remembers dropping him off to clear his name. That was the day he confessed to the crime and was arrested.

"It's sad that it took 23 years for this to happen," says Pappas.

Although he confessed, Horton says he didn't commit the crime, only signing the confession because he was tired after a 10-hour interrogation. Back in 2016, an appellate court overturned his conviction for the state's failure to disclose exculpatory material, or material that could have potentially exonerated Horton.

The Illinois Appellate Court has now granted Horton a new trial.

"This is a case of a man that happened in 1993, that we know who committed it and we know it's not the man who's been locked up for almost a quarter century," says Horton's Attorney Joshua Tepfer.

Horton is now out on bond. While his family knows they'll never get back the 23 years they missed with him, they're excited for an opportunity at a fresh start.

Horton says his first stop is to visit his mother who lives in a local nursing home, then he plans to spend time with daughters and fiance.

The Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's Office is handling the case. They say they're currently reviewing the evidence awaiting the retrial.

Horton maintains his innocence, claiming his cousin Clifton English was actually the one who committed the crime. Horton says English confessed to this murder days after being arrested for another murder.

Tepfer says he and Horton are waiting on April 3, that's when the Appellate Court could potentially decide his fate.