Innocence Project helps exonerate two men from a 1991 Central Park rape conviction

One man served 26 years behind bars, the other, 10.

Two men were exonerated on Monday nearly three decades after they were wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park.

Gregory Counts and VanDyke Perry walked out of a courtroom in Manhattan Supreme Court on Monday to loud cheers and a wave of emotion — fully innocent after being wrongfully accused in 1991.

Counts was paroled last year after serving 26 years behind bars and Perry was paroled in 2001 after serving 10 years, according to the Innocence Project, which helped overturn the convictions.

“I can’t … describe what I went through,” Counts told the judge. “During that time, I prayed for my life.”

Only 19 and 21 at the time, respectively, Counts and Perry were accused of abducting a woman from a Queens subway station, then taking her to Central Park to attack her, according to the Innocence Project. A third man was accused but never arrested. Early-generation DNA testing of physical evidence on her underwear excluded the two men, but her testimony proved enough to convict them.

Only two weeks ago, the woman finally recanted her story, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in court on Monday. She admitting to devising the story because her boyfriend, who she said may have owed the two men money, forced her to do so.

According to the Innocence Project, her boyfriend shot Perry in the foot two months before the accusations. The DNA sample found in her underwear was later matched to a man who has since died and may have offered the woman drugs in exchange for sex, according to the Office of the Appellate Defender, which represented Perry.

Counts first wrote to the Innocence Project while he was in solitary confinement, always maintaining his innocence. The case was reinvestigated in collaboration with the district attorney’s office.

“It’s been 27 years I’ve been sitting there, just sitting there,” Counts said after he left the courtroom. “It’s like a torture I went through, and I know I’m sitting in jail for something I didn’t do.”

Since getting paroled last year, Counts, 47, said he has had trouble finding a job. But he said he won’t live his life with hate.

“I can’t live off hate, nobody can live off hate,” he said, adding: “Right now I really know it’s over.”

For his part, Perry, 48, said he left New York and moved to the West Coast, unable to stay in the state where he was wrongfully convicted. He now has a wife and six children and works managing apartments, landscaping and repairing cars, he said.

“They’ve been there for me the whole time,” he said about his family. “I’ve got a good life now.”

Vance called a wrongful conviction “every prosecutor’s worst nightmare” and said it was a “tragedy for all involved.”

“It’s a very humbling moment,” he said after the hearing, adding to Counts and Perry: “I want to express my deep regret for how the criminal justice system treated you. Your case, and this investigation, is giving us a model [for] how we can going forward [to] try to prevent incidents like these from happening again.”

Judge Mark Dwyer, who overturned the convictions on Monday, said he had been working in the district attorney’s office when their cases were being prosecuted.

“It strikes me you can’t have a civil society unless you have a criminal justice system. And the criminal justice system is human,” Dwyer said before wishing both men “good luck.”

Alison Fox