LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- After spending more than 20 years in prison for a 1998 double murder and robbery conviction, Michael Brizendine walked out of court a free man Thursday, a result set in motion months ago when a federal judge threw out the guilty verdict.

"Michael Brizendine went to prison because of police and prosecutorial misconduct," Washington defense attorney Eric Sandberg-Zakian said after a short hearing in which Brizendine was sentenced to time served. "He was an innocent man."

Brizendine previously entered an Alford plea to charges of robbery and manslaughter 2nd, meaning he maintained his innocence but acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to potentially get a conviction.

Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine said in a statement that he takes "issue with several statements by Mr. Brizentine’s defense counsel."

"First, Brizentine is not an innocent man,' Wine said. "We believe the evidence shows that Mr. Brizentine is guilty of the charges to which he has pled.  And importantly, in his plea, Mr. Brizentine admits that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict him of the charges to which he has pled."

"Second, even though this trial happened over twenty years ago, we are confident that had the prosecutor known that the wallet referred to in this case had in fact been recovered and returned to the victim’s family, he would not have made mention of it in his closing argument."

Earlier this year, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Scott Drabenstadt acknowledged there were problems with the case but insisted Brizendine could be retried for the 1996 murders of Jeffrey Wilson and Johnny Nash.

"Whatever happened in terms of prior trial counsel being ineffective, whatever happened in terms of perhaps LMPD officers either being grossly negligent or even being dishonest in terms of an item of evidence with the wallet, this case can still resolve in a conviction for Mr. Brizendine, no doubt about that," Drabenstadt told a judge in February.

Louisville defense attorney Ted Shouse, who also represents Brizendine, said the change of heart by the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's office to offer a plea and time served rather than retry Brizendine "speaks for itself.

"... It's disheartening to see how things like this happen but now Mr. Brizendine needs to get on with his life,"

During closing arguments of Brizendine’s trial, a Louisville prosecutor showed jurors a photo of a victim's turned-out pocket and noted the man's wallet was missing and had not been recovered.

The implication: The man had been robbed.

But the wallet had been removed by police and later given to the victim's family -- a fact the prosecutor, detective and even Brizendine's own attorney knew or should have known but did not correct during the trial, according to court records.

In addition, police were accused of ignoring and possibly losing a driver's license found at the scene -- a possible alternative suspect, Sandberg-Zakian said.

"Police botched the crime scene, hid evidence and then either missed or covered up a crucial lead," he said. "Then, at trial, these officials got up in court and said things that were false to a jury."

The lead detective could not be reached for comment. He is retired.

Brizendine, 42, hugged his attorneys and smiled broadly at his official sentencing Thursday but referred comment to his attorneys.

He has been filing wrongful conviction motions, often on his own, for most of the last two decades.

After years of getting nowhere, a panel of 6th Circuit Court judges finally accepted his appeal and appointed a Washington law firm to represent him.

In February, the conviction was vacated by a federal judge amid allegations of ineffective counsel and misconduct by police and prosecutors.

After that, the Kentucky Attorney General's office conceded Brizendine has received ineffective counsel and the case was sent back to circuit court.

In March of last year, Brizendine's current attorneys contacted Louisville Metro Police and found evidence the wallet had never been stolen and instead returned by police to Nash's mother.

A police department inventory of evidence found at the crime scene listed a wallet, but Brizendine's attorney did not investigate whether it belonged to Nash, according to court records.

In the guilty plea documents, prosecutors wrote that the charges were being amended because Brizendine has been in custody since 1996 and the victims of the murdered men had forgiven him and "preferred to move on with their lives."

Drabenstadt told a judge last month that the victims' children hoped Brizendine would "go on with his life" and "live a law abiding life from here on out.

"None of this means anything if he goes back to what they believe was his life 20 some years ago," the prosecutor said.

On July 3, 1996, Brizendine and co-defendant George Hobbs were involved in a drug deal with Wilson and Nash, according to court records.

A middleman, Ray Joseph, testified that the transaction at Wilson's home went bad and Hobbs and Brizendine pulled out their weapons. As Joseph fled, he told police he heard several gun shots.

When Brizendine and Hobbs returned to the vehicle, Joseph testified that Brizendine told him "(your) friends just got shot and robbed."

The prosecutor argued the photo of Nash's pocket was relevant because it appeared "to have been partially turned inside-out," leading jurors to assume the wallet was stolen after he was shot.

Lead detective Tim Clark, who is no longer with the Louisville police department, testified that officers had "disturbed" the crime scene, specifically by moving a shell casing. He also said that he was concerned about the photo of Nash's turned-out pocket, according to court records.

And Brizendine's former defense attorney did not question whether Clark was concerned about whether the wallet had been taken by police or dispute the prosecution's claims.

On Feb. 9, 1998, a Jefferson Circuit Court jury convicted Brizendine and Hobbs of two counts of wanton murder, robbery and burglary.

To get to the wanton murder charge, jurors had to believe Brizendine committed a robbery. Prosecutors relied heavily on the crime-scene photo of Nash's out-turned pockets to prove robbery.

 "This is an exoneration," Sandberg-Zakian said of the guilty plea and time served. "It allows the commonwealth's attorney to save some face."

Copyright 2017 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.