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Two men convicted of killing a deputy sheriff walked to freedom after 171/2 years behind bars, receiving an apology from a judge for the "gross injustices" that put them there. Police condemned the release.

Amid cheers and tears from relatives, Superior Court Judge Florence Cooper ordered Clarence Chance, 42, and Benjamin Powell, 44, released immediately Wednesday.They had been sentenced to life in prison for the 1973 slaying of David Andrews, an off-duty deputy who was gunned down in a gas station bathroom in an apparent robbery attempt.

In an unusual move, District Attorney Ira Reiner had joined with the defense in asking that the convictions be thrown out. The defense argued that overzealous Los Angeles police coerced witnesses and suppressed evidence.

"On behalf of the people of California and the criminal justice system in particular, I offer to each of you gentlemen our sincere apologies for the gross injustices perpetrated in these cases," the judge said.

"A great injustice has been visited upon these people," Reiner said.

Police Chief Daryl Gates, who was a ranking department official when the case was investigated but did not participate, insisted the men were guilty.

"To say there was a frame-up by detectives is absolutely and completely false," he said. "If the district attorney thinks anyone was framed, that's a serious charge and the DA ought to do some indicting."

The convictions began to crumble after three girls who had testified they saw the men responsible for the shooting recanted, saying police pressured them into falsely implicating the men.

Evidence also surfaced showing police withheld information that a jailhouse informant who testified in the case may have lied, defense lawyers said.