Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to possessing a firearm without a license in a move that spared him a retrial and additional prison time.
The plea ended a decadelong legal battle that garnered national attention and became a symbol for criminal justice reform.
"I know this has been a long road for you and hopefully this will be the end of it," Judge Leon Tucker told the rapper.
Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and walking out of Center City's Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice to the "Rocky" theme song, Mill declared "Meek freed." For the first time in 12 years, he does not have to return to court.
"I wanted to thank everybody whoever stood for me," Mill said. "I'm very thankful from the bottom of my heart."
Inside, Philadelphia prosecutors touted his criminal justice reform advocacy and charity work in the years since his initial 2007 arrest on drug and gun charges.
"He was adult enough to admit he had a gun, so we feel this is appropriate," prosecutor Paul George said of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office decision not to seek a retrial.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said Tuesday's plea deal was "not an exoneration" but instead an example of correcting 12 years of "excessive punishment, excessive supervision."
"To me the most important lesson coming out of it is just as [Mill] has evolved in the last 10 to 12 years, the criminal justice system also needs to evolve," Krasner said Tuesday afternoon. "People change and cities change and sometimes systems need to change."
Tuesday's negotiated plea came after both sides questioned the credibility of the arresting officer, Reginald Graham.
The defense also accused the trial judge, Genece Brinkley, of bias for sending the entertainer back to prison over minor probation violations.
Mill previously called the 12-year ordeal "mentally and emotionally challenging," but said millions of people face the same issues. He became an activist for criminal justice reform since he was sent back to prison in 2017 for technical violations he blamed on his erratic travel schedule as his career soared.
He spent five months locked up before an appeals court granted him bail.
Last month, a Pennsylvania appeals court overturned the conviction, saying new evidence undermined the credibility of the officer who testified against the rapper at his trial and made it likely he would be acquitted if the case were retried.
District Attorney Larry Krasner's office supported Mills' appeal and said it could not call the former officer to testify after an internal probe found he'd stolen money on duty and lied about it.
Officer Graham has denied the allegations.
Mill has spent a total of about two years in prison over the case, including an initial term of about a year and several later stints over travel violations and painkiller use.
"The past 11 years have been mentally and emotionally challenging, but I'm ecstatic that justice prevailed," he said last month after his conviction was overturned. "Unfortunately, millions of people are dealing with similar issues in our country and don't have the resources to fight back like I did. We need to continue supporting them."?
He is now free of the close scrutiny of Judge Brinkley, who convicted him after a short nonjury trial in 2008 and called him back to court repeatedly during a decade of court supervision. Brinkley frequently complained that Williams was "thumbing his nose" at her, and once visited a homeless shelter to check up on his community service efforts. She later reprimanded him for sorting clothes rather than serving meals as she had ordered. He said he was directed to the job.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court removed Brinkley from the case as it granted Mill a new trial. Krasner's office then had to decide whether to retry him or try to negotiate a plea, perhaps to misdemeanor charges. In his testimony at trial, Williams admitted having a gun but denied that he pointed it at police or was selling drugs at the time.
In 2015, a federal jury rejected a lawsuit Mill filed against a Philadelphia police over what he called a racially motivated, 10-hour traffic stop that led him to miss the launch party for his 2012 debut album, "Dreams & Nightmares."
On July 24, just hours before the Pennsylvania Superior Court threw out his conviction, Meek Mill and Jay-Z announced they were launching a new label called Dream Chasers Records. His growing business empire also includes an ownership stake in the hat company Lids.