Indianapolis, IN -- July 22, 2000 -- Jerry Watkins finished his boiler-room shift at 6 a.m. Friday, and seven hours and 10 minutes later walked out of a Pendleton prison.
He was freed by DNA testing that persuaded a federal judge to overturn his conviction in the slaying of an 11-year-old Indianapolis girl a decade-and-a-half ago.
State prosecutors had contended at Watkins' trial that he had also raped the victim at the time she was killed.
Watkins, 43, had been imprisoned for more than 14 years for the death of his sister-in-law, Margaret "Peggy Sue" Altes.
He left prison with a box containing a transcript of his court case and a Bible.
"He was happy, and I was happy," said his attorney, Joseph Cleary, who helped Watkins secure his freedom.
U.S. District Judge David Hamilton ordered Watkins' release Friday morning.
His decision came shortly after he learned that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago had accepted the state's decision to drop its appeal of Hamilton's initial release order in April.
Hamilton also turned down the state's request for conditions on Watkins' release.
The judge's order had voided Watkins' conviction for the murder of Peggy Sue Altes.
But Watkins also had admitted to molesting Peggy Sue before her disappearance. He was convicted in that incident, which was unrelated to the slaying.
The state asked Hamilton to require Watkins to obtain counseling, refrain from contact with the Altes family, register as a sex offender and abide by other conditions.
Hamilton said the state's request "comes too late and without any legal justification."
The judge earlier had sought Watkins' release from prison but was opposed by the state.
Because the state has withdrawn its appeal, the court had no grounds for imposing any conditions on Watkins, Hamilton said. Watkins had long
completed his five-month sentence for molesting Peggy Sue, he noted.
The Indiana attorney general's office declined comment on Hamilton's order.
"It will be discussed among senior staff," said Charlene Crowell, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Karen Freeman-Wilson.
Hamilton issued his order at 11:10 a.m. By the time Cleary could drive to Pendleton Correctional Facility, Watkins was ready.
Cleary said prison officials gave his client the minimum of $75, plus any earnings, that the state provides each convict upon release into everyday life.
Then they drove to the home of Watkins' mother in southeastern Marion County.
Cleary said Watkins wanted to be with and help his mother, who uses a wheelchair. And he said Watkins might work for one of his brothers, who has a tree-trimming business.
"He wanted to be left alone. He wanted to go home and surprise his mother," the attorney said.
When Cleary entered the house, Watkins and his mother had tears running down their faces, Cleary said.
While Hamilton's ruling freed Watkins from prison, it has not erased suspicions.
At Porter Park, a playground about a block from the Near Eastside neighborhood where Peggy Sue had lived, her older sister Debbie Haynes, 41, talked to reporters about the family's concerns.
The television crews lined up in a row, waiting for interviews, as children played on swing sets that were there 15 years before.
All members of the Altes family are convinced that Watkins played a part in Peggy Sue's death, Haynes said.
"Oh yes," she said, "because he was caught in the act of molesting her."
Her recollection: On an early Saturday morning, Watkins' wife caught him molesting Peggy Sue on a couch -- the second time he was caught by family members.
Watkins then cut his hair and shaved his beard.
That Sunday he was in church. On Monday, Nov. 12, 1984, Peggy Sue was missing.
Haynes' meaning is clear: She believes Watkins is not to be trusted.
Yet the evidence that freed Watkins was more than just DNA evidence.
Hamilton also overturned the murder conviction because prosecutors didn't tell Watkins' trial attorneys about evidence pointing toward his innocence.
Among that evidence was an eyewitness who told police he had seen a man talking with Peggy Sue at Porter Park on that Monday. The witness said the man pulled Peggy Sue into a car about 2:30 p.m., an hour before Watkins clocked out of work.
Haynes said she never heard about this, but added she had long thought someone else might have been involved.
Peggy Sue's body was found five days later in a Hancock County field. She had been stabbed repeatedly.
State officials only recently backed off their insistence that Watkins acted alone.
And that insistence helped free Watkins.
DNA testing showed that the semen found in the murdered girl's body could not have come from Watkins.
That enabled Hamilton to conclude that if Watkins didn't rape Peggy Sue, he didn't murder her either, at least according to the way the state argued its case at trial.
Hancock County officials have said their investigation into Peggy Sue's death is ongoing, and they have not ruled out refiling charges against Watkins.