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Wrongfully convicted Norman man befriends victim who accused him

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Posted at 3:30 PM, Sep 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-02 16:30:00-04

NORMAN, Okla. – After spending 14 years behind bars, one man is now friends with the person who sent him to prison.

Thomas Webb was picked out of a lineup in 1982 for a crime he did not commit. He was arrested and convicted of rape, burglary, oral sodomy and grand larceny.

For years, Webb kept insisting he was innocent. He even sent letters to the victim telling her it was a mistake.

It wasn’t until 1996 that DNA evidence proved Webb’s innocence and he was exonerated from spending 60 years behind bars.

NBC News reports that the victim felt incredibly guilty after being told she sent the wrong man to jail.
“I truly thought I was right for so many years, that he was my monster,” the woman told NBC News. “It was Thomas, and it wasn’t anyone else.”

After he was released, Webb says he struggled with drinking, doing drugs and missing work. He told NBC News that he had trouble adapting to life as a free man.

“I had expected that all I needed to do was just get out, and then I can pick up where I started off,” he told NBC News. “But what I didn’t understand was that I didn’t know how to live life. I had lost the ability to cope.”

Eventually, Webb ended up homeless.

“I didn’t fit in the world that I was trying to run from, and I didn’t fit in the world that I was running toward, either,” he told NBC News.

It was until 2012 when he says he reached his lowest point that he started praying.

“I need help. Help me,” he said. “I need to be able to do something different. I don’t want this to be the end.”

So, he applied for disability and public housing. In January of 2013, he started a 12-step recovery program for addicts, reports NBC News.

Then a reported with Oklahoma Watch started looking into Webb’s case.

“Shaun made a call to the Norman police to ask very simply – did you ever go back and find the real rapist?” Oklahoma Watch editor, David Fritze, told KFOR in July 2014. 

Detectives in Norman poured over the old information, searching for a clue within the DNA evidence that exonerated Webb. Eventually, they discovered that a match was made in 2006 with the DNA.  

“Apparently, the OSBI notified the prosecutor’s office,” said Captain Tom Easley with the Norman Police Department. “But Norman police department was not copied. And it’s at that point that the trail goes dead.”

Through the new evidence, the Oklahoma Watch reporter along with the Norman police reopened the case.

The team eventually found a match to the DNA evidence and traced the suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, to Biloxi, Mississippi, reports KFOR. He was eventually arrested and brought to Norman to face trial.

With the suspect awaiting trial and Webb taking steps to get his life back on track, some might assume that’s where the story wraps up, but not quite.

In 2015, Webb went to speak about his wrongful conviction to a local high school.

KFOR reports that when the victim heard Webb was speaking at the school, she decided to go and meet him.

“I didn’t want to die and not ever meet Thomas and just tell him how sorry I was,” she recalled to NBC News.
She met him in the auditorium and the two began to talk.

“Thomas, I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s OK,” he told her. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.”

Later that night, Webb called the woman and they spoke on the phone for hours, according to NBC News.

They even decided to attend Harris’ preliminary hearing together.

“I thought that possibly the one who caused all these problems and caused all this pain and suffering would get a little taste of it himself,” Webb said.

Despite the DNA evidence linking Harris to the crime, however, a judge dismissed the case. The reasoning behind the decision stemmed from the statute of limitations expiring.

While Webb admits he cannot completely forget the years taken from his life, he takes comfort in his job and the daily freedoms he is able to partake in now.

Webb and the woman still periodically meet up for lunch, says NBC News.

“She’s able to move on with her life now instead of being stuck in fear and guilt because of me, and I’m able to be free from the resentment, the anger, the disappointment,” Webb said.

“He is a good man,” she said.