After 18 years living inside a prison cell, Dwayne Allen Dail's must-do list read like the menu of a country kitchen.
Pork chops for Tuesday dinner at his brother's. Country ham and gravy for breakfast today. His mom promised to make him a peanut butter and molasses sandwich for a snack.
Dail, 39, left his youth behind in prison, paying for another man's crime. Dail was 19, a day laborer and an aspiring rock singer when Goldsboro police arrested him on charges of raping a 12-year-old girl after breaking into her home.
Monday, DNA evidence extracted from the girl's nightgown, forgotten since the night of her rape nearly two decades ago, proved what Dail had sworn all these years: He was innocent.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
"I was an innocent kid and got snatched out of my life and thrown into another with dangerous people," Dail said, whispering over the table at a pizza parlor an hour after being released. "I was scared. I was accused of doing something so far out of character, something so disgusting."
That weight fell from Dail on Tuesday, and he became a kid again. He asked a lawyer for a comb so he could feather his hair before walking into the courtroom. He buried his tear-stained face against the chest of his mother, Rosa Dail. He conspired with brothers to sip whiskey. He tinkered with his sister Dianna Davis' cell phone -- mesmerized by the invention hatched while he was locked away.
A jury sent Dail to prison because a little girl pointed him out when police asked who hurt her. That girl -- now 32 -- still worries that Dail was the one who raped her.
"If it's not him, well, I guess I've been living like I'm safe because the DNA says it's not him," she said. She came to court to watch a judge exonerate Dail but left without entering the courthouse after seeing a cluster of TV cameras outside. The News & Observer does not typically identify people who say they have been sexually abused.
Dail's freedom has cast a dark shadow over Goldsboro police and the Wayne County District Attorney's Office. The new DNA evidence forced them to realize a child rapist could be on the loose. They have reopened the case.
Missed son's childhood
Dail always swore he didn't rape the girl and was so adamant that he passed up a plea bargain to spend three years on probation for a misdemeanor sex offense. Dail's insistence cost him nearly two decades of freedom. A jury found him guilty and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prison. Even as the judge read the jury's verdict, Dail thought it was a joke.
"A cruel joke but still a joke," Dail said.
He headed off to prison a slight young man whose girlfriend was expecting their first son. On Tuesday, he hugged his boy, Chris Michaels, for the first time outside a prison.
"He's missed my whole life," Michaels said. "I'm almost 18 now. I'm grown. I missed him all the time growing up. He's here now, and that's all that matters."
Letting go of anger
In prison, Dail said, he suffered the abuse often unleashed on sex offenders. Inmates blackened his eyes, smashed his nose and knocked his teeth through his lip. He spent most days furious at the hand he'd been dealt.
On his 31st birthday, Dail realized his bitterness wore him out.
"I figured out I wasn't hurting anyone but myself," Dail said.
He turned his angst into a campaign for freedom.
He enrolled in an associate's degree computer program to prepare for a job outside prison. He wrote to members of Congress, jail officials, lawyers -- anyone who would listen.
Finally, attorney Chris Mumma, then with the nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, took notice.
She started digging. Investigators told her evidence gathered during the trial had long since been destroyed.
This year, Mumma got a break. A Goldsboro police clerk told her that an investigator in Dail's case, now deceased, always kept evidence from his cases. They started hunting.
Recently, police found a box with a nightgown, sheet and other evidence in a closet at the police department. A dime-size droplet of semen still stained the gown, Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory said in court Tuesday.
The long wait ends
Vickory agreed to send the items to the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab for testing. On Monday, the director faxed a simple sheet indicating what Mumma believed for years. The semen was not Dail's.
Mumma called Dail on Monday at Nash Correctional Institution with the news. I know you're tired of waiting, Dail said Mumma told him. The wait's over.
Dail's knees buckled. A fellow inmate braced his fall.
Dail mustered the strength to call his mother and sister in Florida and ask them to come pick him up. They drove straight through the night, a suitcase full of fresh clothes for him stashed in the cab.
On Monday night, Dail slept in his steel cot for the last time. At 3 a.m., he shook with sobs. Tears turned to laughter.
Then, he started to dream of the rest of his life.
(News researchers Susan Ebbs and Brooke Cain contributed to this report. )