Flanked by his sister and his attorneys, William Amor raised his hands triumphantly Wednesday as he left the DuPage County courthouse, a completely free man for the first time since October 1995.
"I've always been hopeful. I've always known the system eventually would do the right thing," Amor said. "It's unfortunate it takes 22 years."
Judge Liam Brennan found the former Naperville man not guilty of all arson and murder charges in the 1995 death of Amor's mother-in-law, Marianne Miceli, in a fire at a condo on the 1800 block of Bailey Road in Naperville.
The ruling came nearly three weeks after Amor's bench trial concluded and roughly 10 months after Brennan vacated Amor's 1997 arson and murder convictions related to the case.
Prosecutors maintained throughout the trial that Amor ignited the fatal fire to collect insurance money so he and his bride, Tina Micelli, could start a new life together.
In vacating the convictions, Brennan ruled that advances in fire science proved the description of the crime Amor gave in his confession to police -- that he started the fire with a cigarette and a vodka-soaked newspaper -- was impossible.
On Wednesday, Brennan said the state's fire science experts testified credibly, but the timelines they pieced together didn't match up.
"Because Marianne was not sleeping when Tina and the defendant left the apartment and would have in no way waited 15 minutes to call the police after seeing or smelling smoke, the state's timeline, along with its theory of the case, is fatally compromised," Brennan said. "Considering the evidence in its entirety, this court cannot determine that the defendant was criminally responsible for the fire and thus Marianne Miceli's death beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the state has failed to meet its burden, and findings of not guilty shall enter on all counts."
Amor, 63, removed his glasses and wept as Brennan read his seven-page written opinion.
Lauren Kaeseberg, one of Amor's attorneys from the University of Illinois at Springfield's Illinois Innocence Project, said the lack of evidence against Amor was "clear-cut."
"We are overjoyed that Bill can start his life over again. He's got an amazing family and friends and the support of the Illinois Innocence Project behind him," Kaeseberg said. "This is a whole new world. It's literally the first day of the rest of Bill's new life, so we're focusing on those moments today and we'll deal with the rest as it comes."
Wednesday's ruling also clears the way for Amor to apply for a certificate of innocence, which could be redeemed under the state's wrongfully convicted compensation statute.
According to the formula in the statute, Amor could qualify to receive the maximum compensation, about $220,000.
Kaeseberg said she was not ready to say whether Amor would apply for the certificate but said doing so would not prevent Amor from filing any other lawsuits related to his incarceration.
Amor said he's not bitter about the more than 22 years he spent in prison. Instead, he said he's grateful for his family, friends and lawyers who have stood by him.
Moving forward, Amor said it is his job to work with the Innocence Project to help others in his situation.
His sister, Shelley Williams, said Amor also has a lot of catching up to do, despite being in regular contact over the years.
"He's lost siblings while he's been in prison. He's lost parents," Williams said. "He's lost a lot. We have a lot to make up for."
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, in a written statement, stood by the decision to retry Amor.
"While my office stands by our prosecution and we believe the evidence supported a finding of guilty, we certainly respect the court's decision," Berlin wrote. "This was a very complicated case originally based on fire science available at the time. Since that time, more than 20 years later, fire science has improved dramatically and consequently the evidence presented at this trial has changed from that presented in 1995."
The Illinois Innocence Project plans to celebrate Amor's acquittal at the project's annual Defenders of the Innocent award dinner on April 28 in Springfield.