After his legs were unshackled and his freedom was restored after nearly 28 years in prison, Ronald D. Qualls helped his sister change a flat tire and embraced a pastime that was far less accessible when he went behind bars for a 1992 double murder Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office now says he did not commit.
"It’s funny. I haven’t gotten to sleep yet,'' Qualls said in a telephone interview Wednesday, about 24 hours after Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine M. Roach released him on $500 bail. “I was up all night watching the movies. I like horror movies.”
Qualls, 48, was released on the basis of DNA evidence that prosecutors and his attorneys at the Boston College Innocence Program say exonerates him and incriminates another man in the Oct. 3, 1992 shooting deaths of brothers Roosevelt “Tony” Price and Ronald “Dallas” Price.
Qualls said he always believed he would be a free man someday, but the reality has proven far more powerful than the hope he hung to year after year in prison.
“It’s a whole different thing," he said. “I’m anxious. Excited. It’s like a roller coaster, sort of.”
Qualls was twice convicted for murdering the Price brothers, who were killed by a lone gunman while sitting in a car near a Roxbury nightspot where they had earlier argued with Qualls and a second man, Junior Williams, according to court records. The state’s highest court twice upheld his convictions.
Through all the legal setbacks, Qualls remained optimistic.
“I’ve always had faith in God and in the [cause]," he said. “I was waiting for the right people to come and help."
Those people turned out to be the Innocence Program, led by BC Law professor Sharon Beckman, attorney Charlotte Whitmore, and BC Law student Rachel Feit, who was in court when Qualls was released Tuesday, something she had worked three years to achieve.
"She watched him ... take his first steps into freedom,'' Beckman said of Feit. “It was an extraordinary thing.”
The BC lawyers pushed to have the sweatshirt Williams was wearing at the time of the murders tested for DNA. Williams was taken into custody by Boston police homicide detectives about two hours after the double shooting.
The results showed that Qualls was not the sole gunman, leading prosecutors to join the BC program in requesting that his convictions be vacated.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers also noted that Roosevelt Price had identified Williams as his attacker to at least two Boston police officers before he died.
Judge Roach generally agreed with the arguments and ruled that Qualls was entitled to a new trial.
“The question is whether the new evidence likely could have influenced the jury’s verdict, not whether the jury must have believed it,'' Roach wrote in her decision. "It cannot be denied that this additional evidence about Williams’ potential physical proximity to one of the shooting victims would probably have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberations.”
To Beckman, the ruling does not mean that justice has been served for Qualls, who became a grandfather to two girls while behind bars.
"Ronnie and his family cannot get back the decades he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit,” Beckman said.
Williams was released a few hours after Boston police homicide detectives took him into custody. He was charged with being an accessory to the murders and served about nineyears in prison, Roach said.
Prosecutors have said they are continuing to investigate the killings. They are expected to drop the murder charges against Qualls.
Qualls, who was ordered to stay out of Boston for the immediate future, had no harsh words towards anyone who might have played a role in his long imprisonment.
“I don’t have any ill thoughts or anything like that,” he said.
He also is closely monitoring developments around the coronavirus.
“I think that’s just the world we are living in right now’’ he said. “I try my best to protect myself from it."
He said he is looking forward to finding a job, possibly at “hard labor" or perhaps something similar to his work as a porter at the now closed Fernald School in Waltham.
“I have to do something that keeps me grounded,’’ said Qualls, who will receive counseling through the BC Innocence Program. “I’ve worked all my life."