LOUISVILLE, Ky., Aug. 17 (RNS)--A Kentucky man who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the rape and attempted rape of two women, and who had been incarcerated for the crime for more than six years, has been ordered released and granted a new trial because of DNA evidence--evidence that came to light after a retired Presbyterian theology professor helped raise more than $5,000 to have the testing done.

"It's almost miraculous the way it happened," said George Edwards, a retired professor from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, who worked, along with his wife, Jean, for five years to raise enough money for the DNA testing. "We didn't dream when we went down there," for a court hearing that the judge would set William Gregory free.

Gregory, 52, was released from prison in July and granted a new trial after DNA testing, done on six strands of hair found in a pantyhose stocking that the rapist wore to cover his face during one of the attacks, excluded Gregory as the source of the hair. The kind of DNA testing performed on the hairs wasn't available at the time of his original trial.

During that trial, the victims of the crimes--women who were 71 and 20 when they were assaulted, and who lived at the same apartment complex in which Gregory lived--both identified Gregory as the man who attacked them.

Gregory's case drew the support of lawyer Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project. Gregory, a former salesman, is the first Kentucky convict and the 74th in the United States and Canada to be released from prison because of new DNA evidence.

The whole experience "has strengthened my faith and strengthened my belief in God," said Gregory, who's now living in an apartment donated by a man who heard of Gregory's story through the media. Because of what's happened, "I know that I can endure anything. I know that God answers prayer in his time, not mine."

Gregory has spent the first weeks of his release telling his story to the media and to church groups and taking a crash course in technological change.

He said it's been "kind of rough" learning all at once how to use cellular phones and ATM machines and the self check-out line at the grocery store.

Edwards, who taught New Testament and New Testament Greek at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for close to 30 years, until he retired in 1985, became aware of Gregory's case through another inmate, Cullen Ray.

Ray participated in a New Testament study that Edwards taught some years ago in a Kentucky prison as a volunteer. The two became friends, and kept up their correspondence after Ray transferred to another prison-- Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Ky. There, Ray met Gregory and became convinced Gregory had been convicted as the result of mistaken identity.

Ray began lobbying his friends George and Jean Edwards to push for more sophisticated DNA testing that possibly could set a man he believed innocent free.

All together, six hairs were found in the stocking used in the attack.

Initially, DNA testing could not be used because at the time such testing required using the roots of the hair. After Gregory's conviction, a new form of mitochrondrial DNA testing was developed, which involves extracting DNA from human cells and can be done from the shafts of hair.

The Edwardses set about trying to raise enough money for the new test to be done.

Edwards and his wife worked for five years to raise the more than $5,000 needed to pay for tests to be run on one piece of hair--money they raised mostly in $5 and $10 and $20 donations from Catholics, Unitarians, Mennonites, Episcopalians, "and quite a few Presbyterians," Edwards said in an interview.

After that test excluded Gregory as the source of the hair, the Innocence Project filed a motion for a new trial, and the commonwealth's attorney's office in Louisville spent $9,200 to test the five other hairs.

When the additional DNA testing revealed that all of the hairs found in the socking worn by the rapist came from one person, but none of them from Gregory, Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett ordered Gregory freed from prison on July 5 and granted a new trial.

"He never showed his temper, but you know, he has deep wounds," Edwards said.

For the first three years he was in prison, Gregory said, he felt angry and bitter toward the women who accused him. But he gradually came to forgive them, because "I had to look through their eyes in order to understand what they were doing."

Since his release, Gregory has spoken often of his religious faith. In an interview, he said his uncle is a preacher and he regularly attended a Holiness church in West Virginia as a boy. He went to a Baptist church for a time as an adult, "but you fall away and then you come back," Gregory said.

He said he came back to faith in prison, because "I didn't have anywhere to turn. God puts us through a lot of adversity in order to make you realize that God is there for you."

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