NEW YORK (AP) -- A man jailed 12 years for murder was freed Tuesday after a priest testified that another man had confessed to the crime long ago.
U.S. District Judge Denny Chin threw out Jose Morales' conviction and released him without bail.
''I feel good,'' Morales said as he left the courthouse.
Prosecutors said they would fight to reinstate the conviction.
Morales, 31, was found guilty in 1988 of beating and stabbing to death Jose Antonio Rivera in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City.
At a hearing last week, the Rev. Joseph Towle testified that another neighborhood gang member, Jesus Fornes, had told him in 1989 that he and two other people -- but not Morales -- were involved in the slaying.
On Tuesday, the judge declared that if the priest's statement had been disclosed at trial, ''it is difficult to imagine that any reasonable jury could find Morales guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.''
The priest testified that he kept quiet over the years because he considered the confession confidential. But he said he later came to the conclusion that it was not a sacramental confession as defined by Roman Catholic law, even though he had given Fornes absolution.
According to the priest, Morales' co-defendant, Ruben Montalvo -- also jailed for the past 12 years -- was falsely accused as well. The judge indicated he would also release Montalvo once his lawyers bring an appeal before him. Both Morales and Montalvo had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The case had posed the question of what constitutes a confession in the Catholic Church.
Prosecutors opposed the request for a new trial, saying Fornes' statement was a valid confession under church rules and thus inadmissible in court under a state law establishing the ''clergy-penitent privilege.'' Under the law, the privilege can be waived if the confessor agrees. However, Fornes is now dead.
In a statement, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said the sole eyewitness, Rivera's wife, ''remains absolutely certain'' that Morales took part in the killing.
Wanda Rivera, the daughter of the murder victim, left court in tears, saying Morales and Montalvo brutally killed her father.
''Just because of a priest, they want to release them,'' she said. ''The system has failed.''
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