It took more than 13 years and appeals at nearly every level of the state and federal court system, but with the simple turn of a key by a state correctional officer on Tuesday afternoon, Daniel Larsen was unshackled and free.
"I feel good, feel blessed," Larsen said with an ear-to-ear grin as he rode the elevator down to the main floor of the U.S. Central District Court in downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by friends and family.
Magistrate Judge Suzanne Segal ordered Larsen's release, finding that he was "actually innocent" of carrying a concealed knife during a 1998 bar fight in Northridge. Police alleged that he had tossed the weapon under a car.
Larsen has maintained his innocence throughout the years and eventually got the California Innocence Project to take up his cause.
"It's been a long journey with lots of ups and downs, a roller coaster," said Jan Stiglitz, Larsen's attorney and co-director of the California Innocence Project. "To see him walk out is one of the great moments in our work."
Larsen was no longer wearing an orange jumpsuit reading "CDCR" on the back as he walked through the courthouse halls. After a quick change in a side room, Larsen emerged in a white button-down shirt and dark pants that his lawyer brought just in case he was freed. He kissed his wife, Christina, and they headed for the exit.
"I want to thank God because my prayers have finally been answered," she said.
The Innocence Project's appeal on Larsen's behalf eventually reached the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The organization found that several witnesses — including a former chief of police — saw a different man carrying the knife and toss it before police arrived. Segal concluded that Larsen was "actually innocent," a legal term that means that had a jury heard that testimony, Larsen wouldn't have been convicted.
The conviction was Larsen's third strike and he was sentenced to 27 years to life.
He will remain free as an appeal by the state attorney general's office works its way through the courts. State officials maintain that Larsen is guilty and that his appeals violated state deadlines. He was freed on a $52,500 bond put up by several family members.
"You're being given a rare opportunity here," Segal said. "I hope you use this opportunity well. Don't violate the trust your family has put in you. Don't violate the trust the court has put in you."
Although a 9th Circuit judge ordered Larsen's release in 2010, he had languished in prison. A case being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court could settle the technicalities that are keeping Larsen's future in limbo, so Segal agreed that Larsen should be free in the meantime.
His release is contingent upon several conditions: He must look for a job, go to anger management courses, undergo a mental health evaluation, agree to drug tests and not knowingly associate with the Nazi Low Riders, a white-supremacist gang with which he was previously associated.
Stiglitz said Larsen wants to work with at-risk teenagers to help them avoid the life he led before prison.
"We have been waiting for this for 15 years," said Nikkol Fletcher, Larsen's cousin. "We feel so blessed that we get to spend our lives with Daniel."
While Larsen awaits an outcome in the Supreme Court case, his attorneys are going to meet with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to discuss resentencing him. Under Proposition 36, approved in November, Larsen's life sentence for a third strike would be reduced and he would probably be given credit for time served.
For the Record, 10:11 a.m. March 20: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Magistrate Judge Suzanne Segal as a district judge.