CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio (WJW) – A man who spent more than two decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit is spending his first night in 23-years as a free man. 

John Thompson, 54, was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.

Thompson walked out of the Cuyahoga County Jail Friday afternoon — no handcuffs, no bars, no prison guards.

“I have to take it in right now. It just feels so good to be free. Wrongfully convicted, evidence withheld and now I can praise God,” Thompson said after his release.

Thompson’s family was there to greet him. He’s been away so long, he didn’t even recognize some of them.

“I haven’t seen my niece in 23 years. She was three years old when I left,” he said.

Earlier in the morning, Thompson appeared in court where the judge dropped all three rape charges against him.

“The State of Ohio would therefore respectfully ask this court to dismiss any charges now pending against Mr. Thompson,” said assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor Gregory Mussman.

In September of 2000, he was convicted of raping a seven-year-old relative.

About four years ago, the alleged victim, who is now an adult, told prosecutors a different story, saying he was coerced into saying Thompson sexually assaulted him.

“There is an understanding that the alleged victim in this matter has issued a recantation of the facts that the victim had testified earlier to,” said the prosecutor.

“I’m emotional right now. This been a long road, this been a real grind. My brother, he done lost family members that died over the years, his mom done got ill. I’m just glad he could come home and be with his family,” said Thompson’s brother, Melvin King, while trying to hold back tears.

Thompson’s family says they always knew he was innocent.

“He was a kid, a scared kid. How could you have animosity towards somebody, you know, that’s a kid? My brother’s tough because he could have took a plea bargain but he said ‘an innocent man don’t take a plea bargain,'” said King.

Thompson said now that he is out of prison, he wants to start a youth ministry.

“There’s still work to be done, this is not over. I’ve still got to fight for the brothers that can’t fight for themselves,” said Thompson.

As Thompson takes his first breath of fresh air in 23 years, as a free man he says he thanks God for getting him through his past and now plans to focus on the years ahead.

“It’s a new chapter in my life and stay tuned,” Thompson said.    

Thompson says he plans to spend time having fun with his family.

The judge also dismissed his classification as a tier three sex offender.