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She's free (for now)

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After nearly a decade behind bars, a joyous Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas emerged from prison last week. But she’s still not home free. Sentenced to life for the 1991 murder of boyfriend Joe Bernal, Hargrave-Thomas — who has maintained her innocence all along — faces the prospect of a prolonged legal battle that, if lost, will result in her return to prison.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Gadola vacated Hargrave-Thomas’ conviction, saying she was the victim of “manifestly and flagrantly ineffective” legal counsel. Gadola ordered that she either be set free or face a new trial within 90 days. Wayne County assistant prosecutor Joseph Puleo then appealed that decision. In the meantime, the court ordered that Hargrave-Thomas be released on $50,000 bond. Last Thursday, after two days of dealing with paperwork, attorney Andrea Lyon escorted her client home. She described Hargrave-Thomas as “ecstatic, tearful, excited, bewildered.”

“This is really a big victory,” says Lyon, director of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases at the DePaul University School of Law in Chicago.

But the battle is not over. It could take the appellate court a year or longer to determine whether Gadola’s decision will be upheld. And even if that happens, the prosecutor could still decide to retry the case.

“I just hope all of this ends for Kylleen soon,” says Lyon. “I keep hoping that someone in authority will take a good look at this case and, rather than assuming that Kylleen was released on a technicality, investigate this case with new eyes and find out who really killed Joe Bernal.”

For now, however, Lyon is overjoyed that her client is no longer behind bars.

“I was in tears,” she said. “You spend your career and your life seeking justice for people whose voices have been silenced, and every now and then someone hears you, and it’s pretty wonderful when they do.”

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