Gerard Richardson, 48, was met by family members and his attorney from the Innocence Project, the organization that got a court-ordered DNA test that showed the bite mark left on the murder victim contained another man's DNA.
"I'm starting to believe it now, the cold air's hitting me," Richardson said as he walked down the steps of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal courthouse after posting $5,000 bail.
"I'm just happy to be home," he said. "It's been a long road. This is one step closer to me rebuilding my life."
Richardson was convicted in 1995 of the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose body was found in a ditch in Bernards Township in north-central New Jersey. The chief physical evidence included a bite mark on the victim's back that a prosecution expert said was made by Richardson.
Bite mark evidence has come under challenge from defense attorneys in recent years, and the Innocence Project says more than two dozen defendants either convicted or charged with rape and murder using bite mark evidence have been exonerated since 2000.
Prosecutors in Somerset County did not oppose the decision to throw out Richardson's conviction, but the charges still stand and a state judge has given prosecutors until Dec. 17 to say whether they want to retry him.
Richardson admitted he sold drugs in the 1990s and was "a young guy doing what I wanted to do, not really living life the way I should have" at the time of Reyes' murder. But he adamantly denied killing her. "I wasn't no angel, but I didn't kill anybody," he said.
Richardson said he never gave up hope that he would be released someday to rejoin his three daughters, three sons and grandchildren.
He was headed to visit his mother in Rahway Tuesday before driving to his brother's in suburban Philadelphia, where he will live while is out on bail.
"We need to recognize there were two tragedies here," said Richardson's older brother, Kevin. "Our brother lost time but there was a young person who lost her life. And just like we deserve to be standing here today, that family deserves to have justice."