(LOS ANGELES) — A rising football star in southern California whose career was brought to a sudden halt by a kidnap-rape conviction that landed him in prison was exonerated Thursday after his accuser contacted him on Facebook and recanted her story.
“I’m just thankful to be free now and have the opportunity like anybody else to thrive in life,” Brian Banks told ABC News Radio Thursday. “I’m completely overwhelmed with so many emotions and feelings all at once.”
In a hearing Thursday, Banks shook from sobbing when prosecutors said they did not object to his conviction being reversed. His mother and girlfriend, who were in court, shrieked with happiness.
Banks, now 26, was 17 in 2002 and “by all accounts, a rising football star,” according to court documents. Many believed the 6-foot-4, 225-pound athlete was bound for the NFL. The University of Southern California, a Division I school, had offered him a full-ride scholarship and a slew of other schools — including Michigan State University and University of Kansas — were pursuing the middle linebacker.
“Tragically, Banks would never realize his dream of going to college and playing college football,” his attorneys wrote in court documents. “A high-school acquaintance — Wanetta Gibson — shattered that dream one fateful day after she accused Banks of rape and kidnapping following a consensual sexual encounter.”
When Gibson accused Banks of rape following an encounter at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, his attorneys encouraged him to plead no contest instead of going to trial before a jury and risking 41 years in prison.
His attorneys said he “chose the lesser of two evils” when he pleaded no contest. Banks was sentenced to six years, which he served and is now on parole and registered as a sex offender.
On Feb. 28, 2011, Banks’ story took a dramatic turn. Gibson, his accuser, requested his friendship on Facebook. He did not accept it, but asked her if she would meet with him and a private investigator. She agreed.
“Gibson met with Banks and a private investigator and recanted her preliminary hearing testimony that Banks raped her,” his attorneys wrote. She said that the two had been “making out pretty heavy,” but that they did not have intercourse or “anything like that.”
“Gibson said that they were just playing around, being curious about sexuality, and that the adults got involved and blew it all out of proportion,” according to legal documents. “She said the adults ‘put stuff in [her] head.'”
The problem was that Gibson did not want to tell prosecutors the truth because she feared she would lose the $1.5 million she and her family won in a civil suit against Long Beach schools after the incident.
The California Innocence Project, a law school clinical program at California Western School of Law dedicated to releasing wrongfully convicted inmates, took on Banks’ case and won his exoneration.
The Long Beach School District did not immediately respond to questions from ABC News about whether they would seek the return of the money from the civil suit.
Now, Banks is more than happy to get back to his life with a clean slate, and has not given up his NFL dreams.
“I’ve been training since October of last year in hopes of giving football another shot,” Banks said. “I’m hoping to possibly receive a tryout from a team.”
He is also working on a documentary about his life, according to his website. He said his family is “ear to ear with smiles.”
“Everybody’s just yelling and hugs and kisses,” he said. “Everyone’s just happy. So we all have on these ‘innocent’ shirts and ‘exonerate’ shirts.”
When asked if he harbors any bitterness or anger about what happened, he said, “I’ve been asked that question a couple of times and my answer’s always been no. You know I can hold on to that, that bitterness and that anger. It won’t get me anywhere.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire