KC Baker
May 25, 2017 02:00 PM

A Philadelphia man who spent 24 years behind bars was released from prison Tuesday after his murder conviction was vacated, PEOPLE confirms.

After a judge vacated his conviction, Shaurn Thomas was released from the State Correctional Institution in Frackville, Pennsylvania. He was greeted with hugs and cheers from family and friends.

“It’s been a struggle,” Thomas, 43, told NBC Philadelphia. “Hard struggle. Just can’t give up. That’s why I’m here today.”

In 1994, a jury convicted Thomas of murder in the 1990 shooting death of Domingo Martinez, which took place when Thomas was just 16 years old. He was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole.

“Everyone is happy, very, very happy,” Stephonia Long, Thomas’ fiancée, told CBS Philly. “The whole time he has been very positive because he believed in his innocence.”

Thomas said he planned to head to Red Lobster for its Ultimate Feast as his first meal and got to use a cellphone for the first time, CBS Philly reports.

On June 13, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office will return to court for a hearing where prosecutors will announce whether they plan to retry Thomas.

Shaurn Thomas, center, with attorneys James Figorski and Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project
Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP

In the meantime, Thomas and his lawyer, James Figorski, a former police officer who worked for years with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to free Thomas, are celebrating his release.

“Shaurn engaged in a decades’ long struggle to prove his innocence,” Figorski said in a statement.

“I joined him in that struggle, and many times it seemed that we would never succeed and he would remain in prison for the rest of his life,” Figorski said.

Martinez, a prominent businessman, was robbed in Philadelphia and shot to death on the morning of Nov. 13, 1990 while taking $25,000 to a cash-checking store.

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That morning, Thomas and his mother, who says she was with him, both claimed that he was at the Youth Study Center at the time of the killing, according to the release.

But when Thomas’s case went to trial in 1994, the sign-in log at the center had disappeared and the jury never heard about his alibi, according to the statement.

Testimony by a single witness linked Thomas to the scene of the crime — but the witness later recanted.

Figorski says he took on the case because he believed Thomas’ alibi based on his personal experience as a cop, CBS Philly reports.

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