COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – A judge freed a man Monday who had spent nearly 18 years in prison on a charge of raping a 10-year-old girl after a lab re-examining cases across Ohio showed that his DNA profile didn’t match evidence from the crime scene.

Robert McClendon, 52, was released by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider, who cited the DNA test.

Jennifer Bergeron, a lawyer with the Ohio Innocence Project, said she expects prosecutors to formally drop charges against McClendon within the next two weeks.

“To be in prison for 18 years for something you didn’t do and then know you are going to walk out of court a free man, that’s a lot to take in in one day,” Bergeron said.

A message seeking comment was left for Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who must decide whether to seek a new trial.

McClendon, who denied raping the girl, was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He was denied parole in 2007.

DNA Diagnostics Center, a lab north of Cincinnati, agreed to conduct tests on McClendon and other inmates for free as a public service after The Columbus Dispatch published a series in January featuring 30 inmates whose applications for new DNA testing had been stalled.

The newspaper’s investigation also found flaws in the state’s DNA testing system: Police and courts routinely discard evidence after trials, and prosecutors and judges often dismiss inmate applications for DNA testing without a stated reason.

In McClendon’s case, authorities had long since lost or thrown away swabs from the victim’s medical exam – typically the best evidence for testing rape cases – but agreed to provide the lab with the girl’s underwear.

Using new technology unavailable at the time of the crime, the lab found faint traces of semen that didn’t match McClendon’s DNA profile, the Innocence Project announced last month.

Prosecutors said McClendon took a 10-year-old relative from her backyard, blindfolded her, drove her to a house and raped her. The victim reported the rape the next day and was taken to a hospital.

McClendon was convicted largely on the victim’s testimony, Bergeron said. There was no physical evidence to tie him to the crime, she said.

McClendon was convicted in the 1970s of attempted corruption of a minor for having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 19.

AP-ES-08-11-08 1657EDT

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