It’s rarely a straight line from prison to freedom for the wrongly convicted, but the journey Keyon Sprinkle traveled was more convoluted than most — and it consumed 7,380 days of his life.
Sprinkle was just 17 when Boston police arrested him for the Nov. 16, 1999, murder of Charles Taylor, a shooting he was accused of committing to protect his cousin, Clarence Williams, who was having an affair with Taylor’s wife.
He was still a teenager when he refused in 2002 to plead guilty to a crime he was adamant that he did not commit. Sprinkle was released from prison on Feb. 6.
On Monday, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins wiped out the charge saying the evidence against Sprinkle has been eroded by time and undermined by a defense investigation that identified someone else, who has not been charged, as the killer.
Sprinkle, now 38, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he felt like he had gone from being Fred Flintstone to George Jetson. “That’s the best way I can put it,’’ he said. “It seems like the whole world has changed.”
DNA evidence is usually key in leading to the release of wrongfully convicted people. But for Sprinkle, it was the 20-year dedication to his cause by Boston defense attorney E. Peter Parker and attorneys at the New England Innocence Project: Joseph Savage, Ashley Drake, and Chad Higgins.
Parker and Sprinkle also credit the late Rick Hamilton, a private detective who was fiercely convinced of Sprinkle’s innocence and spent years finding most of the evidence that eventually led to his freedom.
The years of work culminated in a 14-page ruling issued Jan. 29 by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders, who oversaw two days of hearings.
“Sprinkle . . . denied shooting Taylor, much less knowing him,” Sanders wrote. “This Court found that testimony to be credible.”
Sanders’s ruling also described a revelation about Williams, who was convicted of being an accessory before the fact and sentenced to life: Williams knew who the real killer was but kept it to himself for years.
Williams told Sprinkle only after the two began serving their life sentences at MCI-Cedar Junction, then known as MCI-Walpole.
The disclosure came too late for use at Sprinkle’s trial. but it was put before a judge in 2011.
And then there was Sprinkle’s uncle, Bruce Sprinkle, who met the alleged shooter in a Roxbury park where the man allegedly confessed that he had killed Taylor. The uncle did not say a word to authorities until 2016 because of the rule on the streets: "no snitching . . . you don’t tell on nobody,” Sanders wrote in her ruling.
The alleged shooter also confessed to a third person, the judge wrote.
Sprinkle, who was freed in February after Sanders ordered a new trial, said Wednesday he does not want to focus on the role his relatives played in his long incarceration.
"It tore my family apart,'' said Sprinkle.
Parker, who represented Sprinkle at his 2002 trial, said Wednesday that Sanders was one of several judges who looked at the case — and the first to fully understand that “justice was not done.”
“And I am happy that we drew a judge that had the courage to recognize the injustice of this and do the right thing," he said.
Rollins did not say Sprinkle has been exonerated as he and his supporters maintain.
“Mr. Sprinkle is free to describe his release in any way he sees fit,'' her office said in a statement.
Prosecutors remain skeptical about the guilt of the man who had confessed to the killing, but said they were not in a position to try the case any longer.
"The Commonwealth’s ability to prove the charges in the indictments beyond a reasonable doubt is therefore significantly compromised,'' Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Mark D. Zanini wrote in court papers.
Now working two warehouse jobs, Sprinkle is hoping to sharpen investing skills he developed behind bars or expand on the computer repair training he had.
He is determined not to let anger define the new future for himself, his wife, and his three children, one of whom grew into adulthood while he was behind bars.
“We can try to rebuild our family by letting go. Forgiveness is about yourself, not the other person,’’ said Sprinkle, a Muslim.