Two Georgia men who were sentenced to life in prison in the 1996 shooting death of their friend were freed last week after a true-crime podcast helped to uncover evidence of police misconduct in their cases, lawyers for both men said.
The two men, Cain Joshua Storey and Darrell Lee Clark, were both 17 years old in 1996 when their friend, Brian Bowling, 15, died from a gunshot wound to the head while he was in the bedroom of his mobile home in Floyd County, Ga., the lawyers said.
Just before he died, Mr. Bowling had told his girlfriend on the phone that he was playing Russian roulette with a gun that Mr. Storey, who was in the room, had brought to the house, the lawyers said.
But at trial in 1998, prosecutors argued that Mr. Clark and Mr. Storey had conspired to kill Mr. Bowling because he had told the police that Mr. Clark and Mr. Storey had stolen a safe containing $3,200, court documents said.
A jury convicted Mr. Clark and Mr. Storey of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, the documents said. Both were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The men said in interviews this week that they would still be in prison if two podcasters, Susan Simpson and Jacinda Davis, had not explored their case in detail in the podcast Proof, which has released 17 episodes so far.
Ms. Simpson and Ms. Davis uncovered evidence that the police had coerced one of the state’s key witnesses and had taken advantage of another with hearing and speech impairments, lawyers for the men said.
That evidence helped persuade prosecutors to support motions to grant the men a new trial, which a judge approved on Thursday, the lawyers said. Prosecutors then dismissed the murder charges against Mr. Clark, his lawyers said.
Under a deal with prosecutors, Mr. Storey pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter for having brought the gun to Mr. Bowling’s house. He was sentenced to 10 years, time he has already served, his lawyer, Luke Martin, said.
Both men were released from Floyd County Jail on Thursday night.
“They found the truth and revealed it all, and I can’t express enough gratitude for what they did,” Mr. Clark said in an interview on Monday, praising both the podcasters and his lawyers at the Georgia Innocence Project.
Mr. Storey said in an interview on Tuesday: “Without them, none of this would be possible. Those sweet angel people.” He said he told Ms. Simpson and Ms. Davis: “Can I cut some grass for you? What can I do to pay you back? There’s nothing I can do.”
According to court documents, Ms. Simpson and Ms. Davis interviewed a key witness late last year, a man with hearing and speech impairments, who was believed to have identified Mr. Clark as a boy he had seen running from Mr. Bowling’s home after the shooting.
The man, who had difficulty communicating through a court interpreter and did not use American Sign Language, appeared to identify Mr. Clark in court only after a prosecutor walked over and stood behind him at the defense table, the legal filings said.
Using the man’s former teacher as an interpreter, Ms. Simpson and Ms. Davis learned that the man had never actually seen Mr. Clark on the night of the shooting and that he was in fact recounting an unrelated but similar shooting that he had witnessed in 1976, the court documents said.
Late last year, the podcasters interviewed a second key witness, who had initially claimed to have hosted a party where she heard Mr. Storey and Mr. Clark describe how they had killed Mr. Bowling, the court documents said.
The woman told the podcasters that she had never actually heard Mr. Storey or Mr. Clark confess to the murder, the documents said. Instead, the woman told the podcasters that she had been coerced into making false statements after one officer sought sexual favors from her and another threatened to call the state’s child welfare agency and have her children taken away from her, the court documents said.
Mr. Storey said he did not know the extent of the police misconduct until the podcast uncovered it.
“I’m not angry,” Mr. Storey said. “It’s really sad, though. They’re supposed to serve and protect, not lie and manipulate.”
The Floyd County Police Department declined to comment on the case, and the Floyd County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Clark said he had been introduced to Ms. Simpson about four years ago by another prisoner represented by the Georgia Innocence Project, Joey Watkins, whose case was explored in the podcast Undisclosed, also co-hosted by Ms. Simpson.
Despite some initial reticence, “I started opening up to her and bared my soul,” Mr. Clark said.
Ms. Simpson said: “I knew if what he was saying was true, something had really gone off the rails and had to be investigated.”
The Georgia Innocence Project said that the Bowling family supported the men’s bid to have their murder convictions overturned. Two Bowling family members even spoke in support of them in court last week, the group said. A member of the family did not immediately respond to calls on Tuesday.
Mr. Storey said that it had “hurt and hurt” to have the Bowling family believe for years that he had killed Brian Bowling.
“When they finally came around to knowing the truth, and said: ‘We forgive you, and we know you didn’t kill him, and we love you,’” Mr. Storey said, “that meant more to me than anything.”