AUSTIN -- For Tom DeLay, it was a day of triumph in the arena where he once held sway.
Walking through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, the once powerful Republican was greeted by cheers, hugs and slaps on the back from friends and former colleagues. The images are a stark contrast to DeLay's darker days in the not so distant past.
"It is time to conclude this public service chapter of my life," DeLay announced in April 2006, resigning his post as U.S. House Majority Leader on the heels of an indictment for conspiring to violate Texas campaign finance laws and money laundering.
Found guilty in 2010, the lawmaker known as "the Hammer" became a convicted felon.
"It is what it is and we will carry on," DeLay told reporters after the verdict was announced. Lead attorney Dick DeGuerin assured the gathered media, "This will never stand up on appeal."
On Thursday, a two to one decision by the Third Court of Appeals overturned that conviction, citing a lack of evidence. In the majority opinion, Justice Melissa Goodwin explained, "The fundamental problem with the State’s case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity."
Founded by DeLay with the aim of electing Texas Republicans to public office, the political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) sent a check in 2002 to the Republican National Committee (RNC). Days later, the RNC donated $190,000 from a separate account funded by private donors to seven Texas Republicans running for office.
Goodwin reasoned that it's not unusual for political organizations to segregate "hard" and "soft" money through separate bank accounts, and that DeLay's plan to circumvent Texas election laws prohibiting corporations from donating to individual candidates was reasonable and legal.
"I'm very happy about it," DeLay told reporters Thursday, though not without qualification. "This is an outrageous criminalization of politics. And I'm so glad that they wrote the ruling that they did, because in the ruling they say I shouldn't have never even been charged, much less indicted."
DeLay told media he was at the Capitol for a prayer meeting when the news broke. "We were all basically on our knees praying," said DeLay. "And my lawyer calls and says, 'You're a free man.'"
"The line between persecution and prosecution is a very thin one, and sometimes persecution and prosecution share the same DNA," said DeLay attorney Brian Wice told reporter at his Houston office. "This is that case. This is as political a case, as political a prosecution as I've seen."
"No one is above the law," Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg summarized after DeLay's conviction in 2010. The case was the most high profile conviction to date for the state's Public Integrity Unit (PIU), a special agency overseen by the district attorney's office. Areas under the PIU's purview include investigating public officials suspected of corruption and ethics violations.
"I strongly disagree with this opinion," Lehmberg told KVUE Thursday. "I am particularly disturbed that two judges have substituted their opinion of the facts, their assessment of the facts, for that of twelve jurors who sat on this case for three weeks and listened to the testimony and found that the evidence was sufficient for guilt."
Lehmberg points to the dissenting opinion written by Chief Justice Woodfin Jones, which argues the law clearly prohibits the type of donations DeLay was accused of orchestrating. She says says the majority opinion flies in the face of the hard work done by the jury.
"They sat in the box for three weeks and heard the evidence," said Lehmberg. "This is far from over. We're going to petition the Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals to review this opinion."
DeLay told reporters that since the first major ethics accusation was leveled against him in 1995, he's raised and spent more than $12 million in legal fees. Before turning away, DeLay was asked by one reporter whether he may consider running again, now that his conviction has been overturned.
"Probably not," said DeLay. "There's too much other things that the lord wants me to do."