‘John Horton is not only not guilty but is actually innocent of the murder of Arthur Castaneda.’

ROCKFORD — A man who spent 23 years in prison for murder was granted a certificate of innocence Monday in Winnebago County court.

John W. Horton Jr., 42, of Rockford was all smiles after emerging from Judge Joe McGraw’s courtroom.

“It was a long road, but man, I’m blessed by the outcome,” Horton said, standing outside the courtroom with his wife and two of his five daughters. “Today my daughters officially got their father back with his name.”

The certificate not only clears Horton’s name, it also allows him to seek financial compensation.

Horton was charged with the Sept. 19, 1993, murder and armed robbery of Arthur Castaneda at a McDonald’s at 2715 Charles St. Horton, who was 17 at the time, has maintained his innocence.

He was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison, but in October 2016 the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that he was entitled to a new trial. A special prosecutor dropped the charges Oct. 4, 2017. Horton’s cousin Clifton English has repeatedly confessed to the killing but has never been charged. English is in prison for a similar murder committed at the former Bombay Bicycle Club days after Castaneda’s death.

McGraw, reading his ruling in court, said that English has no reason to lie.

“Mr. English is going to be paroled in 2026, when he’ll be 58 years old,” the judge said. “By his confession to this murder, under oath, and after being advised by court and counsel, he now faces exposure for another murder conviction with a mandatory life sentence.”

He added: “Mr. English’s testimony was self-authenticating in that he knew facts that only the real perpetrator would know.” The physical evidence corroborated English’s account, the judge said.

English, who was 24 at the time of Castaneda’s death and already had an extensive criminal history, provided details not released to the media. He knew how the shooting occurred, drew an illustration of where patrons were situated in the restaurant, and knew what Castaneda was wearing, where on the body he was shot and how much money was taken.

“Ultimately,” McGraw said, “the physical evidence and the credible testimonial evidence demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that John Horton is not only not guilty but is actually innocent of the murder of Arthur Castaneda.”

McGraw also said he disagreed with the state’s stance that the Appellate Court’s decision to overturn Horton’s conviction was based on a technicality.

Joshua Tepfer, Horton’s attorney and a member of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, accepted Horton’s case nearly eight years ago.

“John and I kind of grew up together. It’s been a hard, hard-fought road,” he said. “John and his family deserve this more than anyone I know. They are truly, truly special and wonderful human beings.”

Horton’s wife, Melissa, who first asked Tepfer to take on the case, also expressed relief.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “We knew the truth. Now everybody knows the truth.”

This article was originally published in the Rockford Register Star