US judge frees man after 38 years behind bars

NEW YORK (AFP) - A United States man convicted of murdering a young girl - a crime he always denied committing - is enjoying his first weekend of freedom in 38 years after a New York judge freed him.

Mr David Bryant was 18 when he was found guilty of beating, raping and killing Karen Smith, an eight-year-old girl found dead in an apartment stairwell in the Bronx in March 1975.

After initially confessing, the teenager, who knew the family of the victim, pleaded not guilty.

This week, after years of trials and appeals, Bronx Judge Seth Marvin ordered his release.

Mr Marvin declined to rule on Mr Bryant's guilt or innocence, but said he didn't believe the defendant had been able to receive a fair trial, because he was not properly represented by his lawyer at the time.

The judge emphasised that the court-appointed lawyer, Mr Paul Auerbach, never asked for Mr Bryant's blood type to be verified, which could have undermined the case against him.

"This error falls within the category of rare cases where a single error in an otherwise competent defense is so egregious and prejudicial that it deprived defendant of a fair trial," Mr Marvin said, denouncing the "neglect and ignorance" of the defence attorney.

When Mr Bryant heard the ruling, he was filled with joy - and then terror.

"I don't have any place to go. I don't have a dime to my name. What am I going to do? I still don't know," Mr Bryant told the Daily News.

But he said, marveling at the changed world after nearly four decades behind bars, he hopes to do some good.

"I know I can't get these 38 years back. But hopefully that time is worth something, and I can use that something to give back," he said.

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