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2 cousins freed after spending 42 years wrongfully imprisoned – the latest in a spate of high-profile exonerations this week

<i>Vincent Alban/Reuters</i><br/>James Soto adjusts his regalia during a November graduation ceremony for students of the Northwestern Prison Education Program at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill
Vincent Alban/Reuters
James Soto adjusts his regalia during a November graduation ceremony for students of the Northwestern Prison Education Program at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill

By Paradise Afshar and Holly Yan, CNN

(CNN) — Two Illinois cousins who have spent most of their lives locked up for crimes they never committed walked free Thursday after 42 years behind bars – the latest in a series of exonerations this week involving innocent people wrongfully imprisoned for decades.

James Soto, 62, and David Ayala, 60, will now spend the holidays with their families for the first time since 1981 – when they were convicted for the deaths of two Chicago teenagers.

The cousins each received two life sentences without the possibility of parole for the killings, plus 30 years for attempted murder and seven years for conspiracy to commit murder, to be served concurrently.

The pair ultimately served the longest wrongful conviction sentence in state history, said Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, an attorney with the Exoneration Project, which provides legal representation to the wrongfully convicted.

Now, Soto plans to spend his new freedom helping others like him.

“I feel excited, elated, exuberant, but … a bit of righteous anger,” he said after his release Thursday. “It should not have taken 42 years for this to happen.”

The state eventually “agreed to the petitions and asked the judge to vacate the convictions,” Myerscough-Mueller said, and the cousins were asked to argue the case before a judge.

“The emotions today really can’t be described. It was beautiful,” Myerscough-Mueller told CNN.

She said Soto celebrated his release with a dinner with loved ones at Rosebud Randolph in Chicago.

“He had steak and sea bass. He ordered two meals because he couldn’t decide,” the attorney said.

CNN has reached out to Jennifer Bonjean, Ayala’s attorney, for comment.

The cousins have been separated in prison for more than two decades, Soto said. He said he hopes they will be able to help each other in this next phase of life.

While incarcerated, Soto was a part of the inaugural graduating class of the Northwestern Prison Education Program, according to a Facebook post from Northwestern University.

Soto earned a bachelor’s degree in science, has taken the LSAT and plans to go to law school, he told reporters Thursday.

“I’m going to go to Northwestern. I have a job waiting for me there, and I intend to apply to law school,” he said.

“I want to be able to be that lawyer that can help people just like me. I know there’s people still in the system.”

Earlier this week, another wrongfully imprisoned inmate was freed in Cook County, Illinois. Brian Beals, who was wrongfully convicted in the 1988 murder of a 6-year-old boy, was released after 35 years behind bars.

Also this week, California exonerated two men who were wrongfully convicted in separate murder cases. Both were teenagers when they were charged.

And in Minnesota, Marvin Hayes was released this week after spending almost two decades wrongfully imprisoned in a case that relied almost entirely on witness testimony. One witness later said he never got a good look at the suspect, and another recanted his testimony.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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