SAN QUENTIN (CBS SF) — A man who spent almost a quarter of a century on California’s death row took his first steps of freedom right into his family’s arms Thursday after his conviction in the rape and killing of his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter was overturned.

Prison guards released 68-year-old Vicente Benavides at 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon. He looked happy, relieved, and ready to leave San Quentin for good.

Escorted out of the prison in a white prison van, Benavides stepped out a free man. Relatives, friends and his lawyers surrounded him with big hugs and cried tears of joy.

He was officially released after spending the last 27 years behind bars and almost 25 years on death row at San Quentin.

One of his attorneys asked where he wants to go. His reply in Spanish? Eat and drink tequila.

For a good part of his life, the state of California labeled him as killer and a rapist.

Benavides was arrested in 1991 and convicted in 1993 for murdering and sodomizing his girlfriend’s toddler daughter while babysitting the child.

Last month, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions, saying they were based on false evidence.

Relatives said he never gave up.

“He always said he was innocent,” said Jose Luis Figueroa, a close family friend present for his release. “He said that every single day.”

The series of mug shots released by the state over the years showed how Benavides aged over the course of his incarceration at San Quentin.

His last prison photo was taken in 2010.

“Those 27 years [of his life]…he lost a lot of things outside. His mother passed away. His father passed away,” said Figueroa. “A lot of things that he missed, he’s never going to get those things back,”

Benavides did not want to talk to reporters on camera, only saying that he felt good. The attorney released a brief statement.

“He was wrongfully convicted over 25 years ago and we’re very grateful this day has finally come,” said attorney Miro Cizin in the statement.

— Da Lin

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