LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A man who spent 38 years behind bars for the 1983 abduction and murder of a woman in Inglewood was declared factually innocent Wednesday of the crime.
Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan noted that the request for a finding of factual innocence for Maurice Hastings came in a motion jointly filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles Innocence Project.
"... I find him factually innocent," the judge said during the brief hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Hastings, 69, was released from custody last October after his conviction was vacated for the abduction, sexual assault and slaying of 30-year- old Roberta Wydermyer, along with the attempted murder of Wydermyer's husband, Billy Ray, and his friend, George Pinson.
Martha Carrillo, deputy in charge of the District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, told Hastings that he deserved to hear that he is factually innocent in a courtroom, and it comes with a "long overdue apology."
"You have fought for your innocence all these years," Carrillo told Hastings. "You are, in fact, factually innocent."
She noted that Louis Sepe -- one of the attorneys who represented Hastings in his first trial in which jurors deadlocked -- had been accused of putting up a false alibi and said she hopes that Hastings feels vindicated in the work that Sepe had done for him.
Sepe was among those in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom who hugged Hastings after the judge's finding, which was met with a round of applause.
Ayesha Hussain, a staff attorney for Los Angeles Innocence Project, told the judge that the factual innocence finding was "crucial" to ensuring that justice is done.
"Mr. Hastings has maintained his innocence from the very beginning," she said, noting that DNA testing that exonerated him proved he was "right all along."
Hastings said after the hearing the factual innocence ruling "means a lot to me."
"It's been wonderful today," he said. "I'm ready to move forward with my life. I'm a happy man right now ... Now I feel vindicated."
Hastings, who is in an entrepreneurship boot camp, said he plans to leave it up to attorneys regarding whether to seek compensation for the time he wrongly served behind bars
"I just want to move forward. I'm not thinking about compensation right now," he told reporters. "I just want to enjoy my life. I don't think I have 69 more years."
District Attorney George Gascón told reporters Tuesday, "Thanks to the DNA testing completed, Mr. Hastings' DNA profile was excluded and someone else was determined to have been the assailant in this case ... In this particular case, the assailant went on to continue to harm other victims before he was arrested and prosecuted."
Hastings submitted a claim of innocence in 2021 with the District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, and DNA testing done last year matched another person, Kenneth Packnett, according to the District Attorney's Office.
"He went on to commit other crimes after Mr. Hastings was arrested, but then he was arrested for other crimes, convicted and died in prison," Gascón said.
The district attorney told reporters he is "proud that we have corrected this injustice," but said the evidence in this case should have been tested two decades ago.
Wydermyer had made a late-night trip to a market in Inglewood, but she never returned home.
Authorities at the time said her assailant stole her cash and jewelry, assaulted her and then shot her in the head. Her body was then placed in the trunk of her car, which the assailant took.
After his wife failed to come home, Wydermyer's husband and Pinson went out looking for her, and they spotted her stolen vehicle being driven by the suspect. The assailant sped away, but the duo pursued him, authorities said. The suspect eventually fired shots toward the pursuing pair, with Billy Ray Wydermyer suffering a shrapnel wound.
Hastings was arrested months later. His initial trial ended with a hung jury, but he was convicted at his retrial. He had faced a potential death sentence, but jurors instead recommended that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"Today's finding of factual innocence is incredibly significant," said Eliza Haney, a staff attorney for Los Angeles Innocence Project. "The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office initially sought the death penalty against Mr. Hastings twice. If a jury had returned a death sentence, we don't know that he would be here today."