A man who spent more than a decade in prison after being convicted of setting a fire that killed six firefighters was acquitted in a retrial ordered because prosecutors had suppressed evidence.
Eric Jackson-Knight rocked in his chair and prayed as the words "not guilty" were pronounced six times, once for each dead firefighter."It feels like I'm being born again, really," he said later Wednesday.
"Now I'm going to leave New York as quickly as possible."
Jackson-Knight, 37, was convicted in 1980 of setting a fire at a supermarket on Aug. 2, 1978.
He was sentenced to 25 years to life, but in 1988 a judge ordered a new trial on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld evidence that could have exonerated him. He was freed from prison in 1992, but has been in and out of jail since then on other charges.
Prosecutors relied heavily on statements that Jackson-Knight gave to authorities 16 years ago, admitting that he and two other men had been paid $1,500 to burn the store.
The defense said that Jackson-Knight had actually been confessing to another fire.
"I'm disappointed, but they did what they think was right," Assistant District Attorney James Kohler said after the verdict.
Defense attorney Robert Sullivan argued during the retrial that Jackson-Knight had been made a scapegoat by officials seeking a way to explain the fatal fire.
Sullivan, a specialist in liability law who rarely handles criminal cases, took this one after winning a $13.5 million damage suit on behalf of the dead firefighters' families. During that case he discov-ered key evidence was withheld in Jackson-Knight's first trial.
Retired fire marshal Charles King, who believed the fire was arson, testified at the retrial that he warned a prosecutor he had the wrong man when Jackson-Knight was indicted in 1979.
Retired police detective Harold Dugan testified that he told the prosecutor he believed the fire was caused by an electrical fault.
Both men testified as arson experts in the first trial, but their comments to the prosecutor were not disclosed then.