TWO RIVERS -- A man freed after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit arrived home Thursday to hugs, kisses, and two gulps of champagne at a family celebration.
"Oh God, I love you baby," cousin Rita Sittman shouted as she rushed into Steven Avery's arms, tears running down her cheeks. "You start life over now, here we go."
About a dozen family members and friends greeted Avery outside his parents' rural Two Rivers home.
Taped to the garage door were three homemade signs, including one that read "Always Believed in You." Avery's niece, Carla Avery, delivered a half-sheet marble cake with the words, "Welcome Home Steven."
Earl Avery, 33, was among the first to wrap his arms around his brother in a big bear hug.
"It is about time," he said. "How are we going to make up the time?"
He said his brother would be invited to be a partner in the family's salvage yard.
Steven Avery, 43, was released earlier Thursday from the Stanley Correctional Institution in northwestern Wisconsin, thanks to a law school group that pushed for the DNA analysis that proved his innocence.
He was sentenced to 32 years in prison in 1985 on charges of first-degree sexual assault, attempted murder and false imprisonment stemming from an attack on a woman jogger near Two Rivers.
The same Manitowoc County judge who sentenced him to prison ruled Wednesday that the new DNA evidence proved Avery was innocent and linked the crime to another man serving a 60-year sentence for a different sexual assault and kidnapping.
After his release, Avery got one of his first wishes as a free man: He savored a lunch of ribs with his family as they headed home to Two Rivers.
"I feel terrific," Avery said, his blue eyes shining and a breeze blowing through his graying beard. "The wind, no bars, no fences. I figured this day would come sooner or later."
But there was also bitterness for the years spent in custody.
"The system ... needs to be fixed," he said. "I lost my marriage, my kids and my family."
At the time of the attack, Avery was married with five children, including twin sons born six days before his arrest. He was divorced after going to prison.
Avery left prison with his parents, sister and 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer. "I am glad it's over, very glad," said his father, Allen Avery.
The elder Avery said he spent eight years listening to his wife, Dolores, cry at night over the ordeal, and he's still angry at authorities for blaming his son.
Daughter Jennifer was just excited to see the dad she barely knows.
Avery's sister, Barb Janda of Two Rivers, took two days off work to get reacquainted with her brother.
"He should have been out years and years ago," she said. "I think we all need an apology, too, for even some of the words they said in the courtroom."
Students in the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the UW-Madison Law School worked on Avery's case for two years.
The group obtained a court order to allow further testing of the DNA in a hair sample from the crime scene. The testing by the state crime lab matched the DNA to another man already in prison for an unrelated crime, said Innocence Project co-director Keith Findley.
Manitowoc County District Attorney Mark Rohrer said Thursday that the statute of limitations on sexual assault is six years, but no decision had been made about whether the other man would face prosecution. He would not elaborate.
The other man was convicted in a 1995 Brown County case, he said.
Avery's exoneration is the first under Wisconsin's DNA-testing statute adopted in 2001, according to the state attorney general's office. The law requires the preservation of biological evidence as long as anyone remains in custody and provides a right to post-conviction DNA testing.
Avery could petition the state Claims Board for compensation, according to Mike Bower, an administrator for the state Justice Department.
Under a state law that provides compensation for innocent convicts, those who successfully petition the board are eligible for up to $5,000 per year they were imprisoned, not to exceed $25,000, he said.
The board can submit a report to the Legislature with the amount the board believes is sufficient.
Avery said it was too early to say whether he would file a civil lawsuit.
"Maybe in a couple days I will think about it," he said.
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