Maurice Hastings, center, who spent more than 38 years behind bars for a 1983 murder he did not commit, is applauded while appearing at a court in Los Angeles where a judge officially found him to be factually innocent on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA News Service via AP, Pool)

By The Associated Press

An African-American man who spent more than 38 years behind bars for a 1983 murder he did not commit was declared innocent by a judge in Los Angeles on March 1.

Maurice Hastings was released from prison last year after long-untested DNA evidence pointed to a different suspect. The judge in October vacated Hastings’ conviction at the request of prosecutors with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and his lawyers from the Los Angeles Innocence Project.

Prosecutors and Hastings’ lawyers returned to court to ask Judge William C. Ryan to take the additional step and declare him innocent of the killing 40 years ago.

The judge’s March 1 declaration of Hastings as “factually innocent” means the evidence proves conclusively that Hastings did not commit the crime.

“It means a lot. I’m grateful for the judge’s ruling, and the apologies — everything has been wonderful today,” Hastings said after the hearing, according to the Los Angeles Innocence Project. “I’m ready to move on with my life. I’m a happy man today.”

District Attorney George Gascón said Hastings “survived a nightmare.”

“He spent nearly four decades in prison exhausting every avenue to prove his innocence while being repeatedly denied,” Gascón said in a statement. “But Mr. Hastings has remained steadfast and faithful that one day he would hear a judge proclaim his innocence.”

Gascón said the ruling will clear Hastings’ name and pave the way for him to seek possible relief in connection with his wrongful conviction.

The victim in the case, Roberta Wydermyer, was sexually assaulted and killed by a single gunshot to the head, authorities said. Her body was found in the trunk of her vehicle in the city of Inglewood near Los Angeles.

Hastings was charged with special-circumstance murder, and the district attorney’s office sought the death penalty, but the jury deadlocked. A second jury convicted him, and he was sentenced in 1988 to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Hastings maintained he was innocent since his arrest.

At the time of the victim’s autopsy, the coroner conducted a sexual assault examination, and semen was detected in an oral swab, the district attorney’s office said in October.

Hastings sought DNA testing in 2000, but at that time, the DA’s office denied the request. Hastings submitted a claim of innocence to the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit in 2021, and DNA testing last June found that the semen was not his.

The DNA profile was put into a state database and matched to a person who was convicted of an armed kidnapping and forced copulation of a female victim who was placed in a vehicle’s trunk. The suspect, Kenneth Packnett, died in prison in 2020, prosecutors said.

Hastings, who was 69 years old when he walked out of prison last October, told reporters at the time that he had prayed the day of his freedom would come.

“I am not standing up here a bitter man, but I just want to enjoy my life now while I have it,” Hastings said.

Separately, a Black Ohio man who spent more than 16 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence showed he did not commit has reached a $4 million wrongful imprisonment settlement.

The agreement between Christopher Miller and Cleveland Heights was made public this week. Miller had been sentenced to 40 years in 2002 on charges including rape in an attack on a Cleveland Heights woman.

The victim’s purse was stolen during the attack and police started tracking her cellphone, which was in the purse. They eventually found the phone in Miller’s possession, and he said he had bought it from a stranger in exchange for drugs and denied involvement in the rape or the attack.

The Ohio Innocence Project became involved in the case and pushed for updated testing that found DNA from two men convicted of a similar crime but none from Miller, who has been free since 2018. A judge ruled in August 2021 that he had been wrongfully imprisoned, meaning he was eligible to seek compensation.

“Too many years were stolen from me and my family. I can never get that time back, time to raise my children and build my life,” Miller said in a statement. “But I am thriving now, and I am glad to put this final chapter of my case behind me so I can move forward.”

Cleveland Heights and its police department denied any wrongdoing or liability. A city spokesperson said that “proceeding to try a lawsuit over events nearly 22 years ago poses a substantial risk for both sides in these circumstances.”