CLEVELAND — After proclaiming his innocence for more than two decades, a Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas judge ruled Chris Miller was a "wrongfully imprisoned individual" Monday.
Miller was convicted of the 2001 sexual assault of a Cleveland Heights woman inside her apartment.
But in June 2018, after serving nearly 17 years behind bars, prosecutors dismissed the case against Miller after DNA linked two other men to the attack.
Miller was freed from prison, but said he spent the next three years looking over his shoulder wondering if he would be arrested again.
"Definitely, I started having anxiety attacks here and there because it's hard, you know?" Miller said after Monday's court hearing. "I'm always worried about that. That's always on your shoulders thinking about it. Will they come get me?"
Miller, now 44 years-old, broke down in tears as Judge Kelly Gallagher declared him a "wrongfully imprisoned individual" under state law.
"My emotions are so all over the place," Miller said after the hearing. "The feeling is just, man I'm on a high right now. This is a blessing. Definitely a blessing."
"It's so much more than a formality," said Miller's attorney Jacqueline Greene. "This is the day after over 20 years of living under this shadow, under this cloud, under this weight, that finally Chris was declared, he we was recognized by the state, the entity that put him in prison in the first place, to have been a wrongfully imprisoned person."
Miller's daughter Chareale was 5 years old when she watched her father get arrested. She called the judge's ruling vindication.
"Trying to explain to people when you're young that my dad is innocent and all that, it's kind of like, okay, yeah," said Chareale Miller. "Now it's like real."
The judge's ruling now paves the way for Miller to file a claim against the state for wrongful imprisonment. Under the law, Miller could receive about $57,000 a year for each year he was locked-up.
He's also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Cleveland Heights police. That case is still making its way through court.
For now, Miller said he's ready to move forward with his life. A life, that he said is forever changed.
"Even though I was in prison, it made me a better person," said Miller. "I couldn't do anything. I can't keep crying about it or hold a grudge. I won't ever prosper in life if I keep going that way. I've got to do it the right way."