Hearing a Superior Court clerk announce "not guilty" Tuesday, Michael Mead's three years as an accused killer ended.
He wept, hugged his lawyer and then reached for his mother and father sitting behind the defense table.
"Thank God," he said, clutching his parents.
Mead could have faced the death penalty, but a Mecklenburg jury found him not guilty of murdering his pregnant fiancée.
He was accused of shooting Lucy Johnson in the back of the head and burning her Gaston County home July 16, 2008.
Johnson, an emergency room nurse at Kings Mountain Hospital, would have turned 34 the day the verdict was read.
"For the last three years, I've been charged with a crime I did not commit," Mead said in the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.
During the six-week trial, prosecutors said Mead was upset with Johnson because she was pregnant and refused to have an abortion. He killed her, they said, and then set fire to her home to cover up the crime.
His defense attorneys laid out a scenario that Mead could not have committed the crime, presenting evidence that he was at home playing video games.
A digital forensic examiner also testified that cellphone records showed that Mead's phone was used at his house in Fort Mill, S.C. - about 50 minutes from Johnson's home - when the crime was committed.
Jurors deliberated for more than nine hours Monday and Tuesday. In the jury room, they pored over pages of notes and details. They filled a dry-erase board with questions: Was Mead home at the time of the crime? Was a jailhouse snitch believable?
"There was a lot of testimony that we went through," said juror Alan Meeker, 51, who works in the health care industry. "I'm not sure he's guilty or not. But the state had the burden of proof and they didn't provide that in our eyes."
Juror Kevin Black, 47, said two of the jurors needed to be persuaded to find Mead not guilty.
Black, who works in sales, said the majority managed to convince one of the two to vote 'not guilty,' but one juror held out.
"Her heart didn't tell her which way to go," he said. "We didn't finally coax her into changing her mind until 3:25."
Lucy Johnson's mother left the courtroom shaking her head. Michele Dye, the mother, had previously called for a mistrial because she thought the prosecution mismanaged the case.
"I don't blame the jury," she said. "They can only judge on what they heard."
Assistant District Attorney Robert Forbes declined to talk with the Observer. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said he was "disappointed" by the verdict.
"All the evidence that was relevant to the case was provided," Bell said. "We provided everything we had and the jury said that wasn't enough."
After the verdict was read, Mead's attorney, Lisa Dubs, her eyes red, embraced her client. "I told you we'd do it," she said.
Dubs said she's sorry the Johnson family still does not have the resolution they need, but that her client was not guilty.
"Lucy didn't deserve what happened to her," Dubs said. "Lucy and Mike's baby didn't deserve what happened either. Justice still needs to be done."
The verdict is another major victory for Dubs, who specializes in death-penalty cases. She has represented several high-profile defendants, including Jerry Anderson of Caldwell County, who was charged with murdering his wife and stuffing her body in the toolbox of her pickup. In 2007, he was freed after a jury deadlocked. All but one juror voted not guilty.
Following Tuesday's decision, she asked Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges to sign an order allowing Mead to take custody of his unborn son's body.
"I'll get to bury him," Mead said.
Staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and researcher Maria David contributed.