A Criminal Court jury on Wednesday morning found Michael Lee McCormick not guilty of all charges in the 1985 murder of Donna Jean "Jeannie" Nichols.
McCormick, who is 55, had spent 16 years on death row before winning a new trial.
Defense attorneys Mary Ann Green and Karla Gothard, who tried the case along with Mike Richardson, patted McCormick on the back in the courtroom at the City-County Courts Building.
Attorney Gothard said, "We have been living with this case for years, and we are immensely relieved. I can't imagine what Michael McCormick is feeling.
"I have the deepest conviction that Michael McCormick did not commit this murder."
The victim's sister, Vicky Nichols, was led sobbing from the courthouse.
The victim's father, Nick Nichols, said, "I don't see how anybody with any common sense can say McCormick didn't do it."
Cindy Reed Kennedy, cousin and best friend of the victim, said the family is sure McCormick carried out the murder. "We know things that were not allowed in court. There's no doubt he did it," she said.
Prosecutor Mike Taylor said he was disappointed in the jury verdict, but he said the state "put on as good a case as we could with the proof we had."
He said he did not believe that any other viable suspect had been developed.
McCormick was freed later Wednesday, and he told reporters he is praying for the Nichols family.
He said, "I hope they get the right person and convict them. I had nothing to do with it."
A hair found in Ms. Nichols' car that an FBI agent said at the first trial matched that of McCormick was not allowed in this trial after DNA testing disapproved it.
Ms. Nichols was killed in the early morning of Valentine's Day 1985. She was apparently shot in her car after leaving the Brainerd Beach Club, then her body was dumped on the parking lot of Eastgate Mall.
Authorities said McCormick had carried out a burglary with Ms. Nichols' brother and she had found out about it.
Ms. Gothard said after the verdict that McCormick "was just shaking. Tears were coming out of his eyes."
Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood told the jury members they had done their duty and should walk out of the courtroom "with your heads held high."
He said the case was a "tragedy" for all involved "and it will remain a tragedy. There may never be closure in this case.
"The way this case has lingered on, there has not been closure for Michael McCormick for 20 years."
The judge said, "This system is not perfect, but somehow it works itself out."
The panel deliberated about seven hours on Tuesday and a couple more hours on Wednesday.
Outside the courtroom, Nick Nichols said, "My daughter's just a basket case. My granddaughter, age 16, said last night that if he was not found guilty, she would be losing her Pawpaw and her momma too."
He said of his daughter, "Boy, I sure miss that kid. She was everything you could want in a daughter. She was smart. She was sweet. She loved her parents. She tried real hard.
"She went to school for 23 years and then she got to live for four months."
JoAnne Nichols, the mother of Jeannie Nichols and the founder of a support group for murder victims, died several years ago.
Ms. Gothard said she had hoped the trial would bring closure to the Nichols family, "but I think it has raised for them even more questions."
She said, "I can't imagine how they must be feeling. They've been told for 22 years that Michael Lee McCormick was the person who killed Jeannie Nichols. Now they are grief-stricken all over again."
Nichols family gathers after getting not guilty finding