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DNA tests free jailed man after 26 years

Received life sentence for rape convictions

MIAMI -- A man who spent 26 years behind bars as Florida's ''Bird Road Rapist" was released from prison yesterday after DNA evidence cleared him in two of the attacks and cast doubt on whether he was responsible for any of the crimes.

''Victory," 67-year-old Luis Diaz said as he walked out of the courthouse. He said he planned to spend time with his family, was not bitter about the time he lost, and did not blame prosecutors.

''They did their job. You have to respect that," he said later at a news conference.

Judge Cristina Pereya-Shuminer threw out his five rape convictions at the request of both Miami-Dade County's chief prosecutor and lawyers for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to get inmates exonerated via DNA.

About 30 relatives and friends in the courtroom stood and applauded after the judge said he was free to go. A handcuffed Diaz, dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, waved to his family and wiped his eyes with tissues.

Prosecutors stopped short of declaring Diaz innocent in all the rapes, instead citing the difficulty of retrying him after a quarter-century.

''It is impossible to ignore the difficulties inherent in retrying five very old cases even under the best of circumstances," the dismissal request said. ''Police investigators retire, memories fade, and victims move on with their lives."

Diaz, who is married with three children, was convicted in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison for seven of 25 sexual assaults that occurred between 1977 and 1979 in the Bird Road area of Coral Gables, south of downtown Miami.

Payment for his years in prison also was not on his or his family's mind -- for now. ''He is our compensation right now," said son Jose Diaz, 40, who was flanked by his brother and sister.

Attorney Roy Black, who represented Diaz at his trial, said he was thrilled.

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