Posted Aug 17 2018 06:07PM EDT
Video Posted Aug 17 2018 05:50PM EDT
Updated Aug 21 2018 09:31AM EDT
For the first time since Aaron Salter was wrongly convicted of murder in 2003, he celebrated his birthday as a free man.
It was a gift that federal defenders Colleen Fitzharris and Jonathan Epstein helped pick out for him.
"I think that birthday present right there makes up for the whole 15 years that I was locked up and missed my birthday," Salter said.
Amazingly, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound former football player was convicted of a crime committed by 5-foot-7 150 pound man. While federal defenders battled for 10 years to undo that gross injustice, Salter says he matured, embracing faith.
"I had natural life, so I had no choice but to submit to God because there were days that I didn't think that I could make it," he sad.
Besides his lawyers, Salter is most thankful for the murder victim's sister.
"From day one, Joan Thomas, man, the victim's sister. She was by my back. And that's strange that a victim's sister would be behind a guy. But she actually knew that I didn't do the crime," he said.
"She stood up at sentencing and said you had the wrong guy. She told that to the trial judge," his lawyer, Jonathan Epstein, said the sister told the judge but nobody listened to her.
"That seemed that that's the one person you should listen to," Salter said.
Salter's current attorneys agree that his trial lawyer was no Perry Mason. Salter and his current attorneys fault the system that put him away on such shoddy evidence.
"It shouldn't have took 15 years for that. I'm kinda upset about that because i never supposed to even experience this if the justice system worked like it was supposed to work," he said.
Epstein says not enough work went into the case when it was new in 2003.
"I think it's incumbent upon police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges to always question if the right thing is going on and to intervene if they have power to stop something like this from happening. They should use it, they shouldn't hope that somebody down the line will fix it," said fellow lawyer Colleen Fitzharris.
Nevertheless, Salter's ordeal hasn't made him bitter, it's made him better.
"My grandmother told me before she passed away, she said: 'bitter eats you up. When you're bitter about something it really eats you up. It don't do nothing for the person.' so i just let go of all the bitterness. And my heart is pure," he said. "I got a life. God gave me a second chance at life. I'm going to make it count."