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California high school football star cleared of rape 10 years later

A former California high school football star, Brian Banks, has been cleared of a rape and kidnapping conviction that derailed his life more than 10 years ago. Now, he is hoping to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.

Former high school football start Brian Banks said he's "happy to be free" after a California judge exonerated him of a 2003 rape conviction because his accuser recanted her testimony.

"It was bittersweet, you know, just happy to be free now, happy to clear my name, but also very much in a reflective state and just remembering everything I've been through to get to this point," Brian Banks told TODAY's Ann Curry Friday.

In high school, Banks was awarded a scholarship to the University of Southern California and was regarded as a top college football prospect with good chances of going into the NFL, but his professional sports prospects were derailed by the conviction.

Though Banks, now 26, had always maintained his innocence, he pleaded no contest a decade ago to charges that he raped a fellow student. A plea deal meant he served nearly six years in prison, instead of the 41 he could have faced.

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Banks had tried to win release while he was in prison, but Justin Brooks, a law professor and head of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego, said he could not have been exonerated without the woman coming forward and recanting her story.

"Brian’s story is so compelling, and his case for innocence so clear, we knew we had to take this on," Brooks said in a press release. “Brian lost a huge part of his life when he was unjustly sent to prison."

Brooks said it was the first case he had ever taken in which the defendant had already served his time and had been free for a number of years.

Banks remained on probation, however, and was still wearing his electronic monitoring bracelet at the hearing Thursday. He also had to register as a sex offender. His lawyer said the first thing the two planned to do was report to probation officials and have the bracelet removed.

"The charges are dismissed now," Brooks said. "It's as if it didn't happen. ... It was the shortest, greatest proceeding I've ever been part of."

Banks' accuser, Wanetta Gibson, reportedly friended Banks on Facebook after he got out of prison, saying she wanted to "let bygones be bygones."

According to documents in the case, she met with Banks and said she had lied, and she offered to help him clear his record.

But she later refused to repeat her statements to prosecutors because she was worried she would have to return a $1.5 million payment from a civil suit brought by her mother against the Long Beach Unified School District.

Researchers: More than 2,000 false convictions in 23 years

She told Banks, "I will go through with helping you but it's like at the same time all that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don't want to have to pay it back."

In a brief hearing Thursday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark C. Kim told attorneys that the case was dismissed based on documents filed by Banks' attorneys.

"This is a kid who was a superstar,'' Brooks said. "He would be playing the NFL now if this hadn't happened.'"

Banks tweeted Wednesday, "So many people coming to show support tomorrow!! ‪#fullhouse‬ nothing but love and I love y'all back x2!!"

According to his website, he wants to produce a documentary about his life, and is hoping to return to football. He's been training since his release from prison in 2007.

"I think that any team that gives me an opportunity would be really impressed with what I can do despite all of what I've been through these past 10 years," Banks told TODAY's Curry.

He also said he hasn't thought about what should happen to Gibson.

"I do believe that everyone should be responsible for their actions, and if that action warrants some type of consequence, then I feel that, you know, it's justified," Banks said Friday, adding that he no longer feels angry and vengeful toward Gibson.

"I've had my moments where I was very angry and very vengeful but I know it was best for me to try and move forward in a positive manner for the betterment of me," he said. "It hurts no one but myself to hang on to that type of negative energy."

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