Former football player Aaron Salter spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, reports Fox 2 Detroit. For the first time since his wrongful conviction in 2003, he celebrated his birthday as a free man as he walked out of Chippewa Correctional Facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Wednesday.
On Friday, Salter commented, “I just think that birthday present I got made up for everything. I’m going to be the best person I can be with my second chance.”
The 6’3″ 250-pound former football player was sentenced to life in prison after an eyewitness reported seeing “a thin man” pull the trigger during a fatal shooting. Although Salter, who was a University of Arkansas defensive linebacker at the time, did not fit the description, he was convicted of first-degree murder.
His federal defenders, Jonathan Epstein and Colleen Fitzharris, spent 10 long years battling to undo the injustice. As he celebrated his freedom with a barbecue at the Detroit headquarters of the Federal Defender Office, he signed autographs for the attorneys, commenting that he wished he had money to give them.
Salter is most thankful for the murder victim’s sister, who advocated for him during the time he spent in prison.
“From day one, Joan Thomas, man, the victim’s sister. She was by my back. And that’s strange that a victim’s sister would be behind a guy. But she actually knew that I didn’t do the crime,” Salter said, according to Fox 2 Detroit.
During Salter’s sentencing, Joan Thomas stood up and told the trial judge that they had the wrong guy.
Salter and his attorneys blame the faulty system that sentenced him based on sparse evidence and an eyewitness, who wasn’t even convinced at the time that Salter was the man he saw commit the murder. His lawyers believe that not enough work went into the case back in 2003.
Epstein commented on the situation, writes The Detroit News.
“The system failed Aaron Salter every step of the way. He was denied all the way through the appeal process, but we continued to work the case. We convinced Jim Hoppe, the FBI’s main polygrapher in Detroit, to give him a polygraph test. He passed with flying colors. That was another piece of the puzzle.”
Although Salter has good reason to be bitter after spending so many years in prison, he says that he matured and embraced faith while locked up.
“My grandmother told me before she passed away, she said: ‘bitter eats you up. When you’re bitter about something it really eats you up. It don’t do nothing for the person.’ So i just let go of all the bitterness. And my heart is pure. I got a life. God gave me a second chance at life. I’m going to make it count.”