Prosecutors dropped murder and burglary charges Monday against an Orange County man who spent 3 1/2 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
"I'm not guilty," an overwhelmed Earl Rhoney told reporters as he left Orange County Jail and made his way to a friend's car. "I knew things were going to go my way. It was just a matter of time."
Prosecutors decided they could not proceed after a judge ruled that key evidence obtained through the use of a so-called scent machine could not be used at Rhoney's second trial.
Investigators used the machine to extract skin cells from the victim's clothing and then transferred the substance to a gauze pad. Rhoney was arrested after a police bloodhound sniffed the pad and then picked out Rhoney near a shopping mall.
Prosecutors said the evidence is crucial to obtaining a conviction for the killing of 46-year-old Patricia Lea Pratt, who was slain during a 1994 burglary at her home in Irvine's Turtle Rock community.
Dropping the charges gave Rhoney his freedom, but it allows the prosecution to keep the case open if new information surfaces, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Lloyd.
The 22-year-old former Irvine resident said he dreads being forever labeled a murder suspect.
"It's impossible for me to be innocent, to be thought of the way I should be, and that really bugs me," Rhoney told The Times shortly after leaving jail. "It will never go away. I can't get rid of it."
Rhoney said he was uncertain about his future beyond his plans to eat pizza, buy a pair of sunglasses and go see the "X-Files" movie. He said he planned to leave Orange County.
Pratt's husband, Paul, and mother, Beatrice Kell, said they understood the prosecution's actions but asserted that a guilty man has just been set free.
"I never believed in anyone being a bad seed before, but I do now," Kell said. "I think he'll go out and burglarize again and he'll murder again."
Paul Pratt, who marked what would have been his sixth wedding anniversary Sunday by spending the day with his mother-in-law, said the victim has been forgotten in the process.
"Lea got lost in the trial," Pratt said. "She was a wonderful, living human being who was loved by a lot of people. The fact that [Rhoney] is being released . . . won't change our memories of her."
In December 1996, Rhoney, who had several burglary convictions, became the first person in California to be convicted of a murder based on evidence from a scent machine. He faced life in prison without parole.
But on sentencing day, Orange County Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Rackauckas threw out the verdict, saying the scent machine evidence was unreliable and ordered a new trial.
Superior Court Judge John J. Ryan, who was to preside over a second trial set to begin Monday, ruled earlier this month that the scent machine evidence was tainted and would not be allowed as evidence.
Lloyd said prosecutors had no choice but to drop the case.
"It is very hard and depressing," Lloyd said outside court. "I feel the man was convicted and he should be sitting in prison for the rest of his life for this murder and he's going to be walking the streets."
Rhoney became a suspect in Pratt's murder when he was arrested two weeks after the slaying in connection with another burglary in the same community. Then 17, he was sent to Juvenile Hall in Orange for that burglary.
The key evidence against Rhoney came from a machine that investigators said extracted cells from the victim's clothing, which had been stored in an evidence freezer.
When Rhoney was released from Juvenile Hall nine months after Pratt's slaying, a bloodhound named Duchess and her Irvine police handler, Larry Harris, were on the street outside. Duchess sniffed the extracted matter from a gauze pad, then picked out Rhoney as he walked to a nearby mall.
Rhoney said he is not going to let the possibility of a retrial ruin his life.
"I can't sit and wait for them to come knocking on my door and say, 'Here we go again,' " he said. "I just want to live, to just enjoy living. I haven't been out in the rain in four years. I haven't been out in the sun in four years."