By Richard Weizel
NEW YORK, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A Connecticut man who spent 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder was awarded $6 million on Thursday in the first such payout by the state.
Kenneth Ireland, who was found guilty at age 18 of raping and murdering a woman, was released in 2009 after DNA tests exonerated him.
The tests led instead to the conviction of Kevin Benefield, who had known the victim, Barbara Pelkey. Benefield was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Ireland, now 44, said on Thursday through the office of his attorney, William Bloss, that the payment "ensures my security and affords me some room to explore the world and see things I've missed."
"It still hasn't completely registered yet," he said. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around it all."
It is the first-ever award made by the state's Office of the Claims Commissioner since such compensation was approved in 2008 by the state legislature.
"He experienced 21 years of violence, sleepless nights and the constant fear and hopelessness that he would die in prison as an innocent man," Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance wrote in a report.
"I offer my sincerest apologies to Mr. Ireland for the burden that he was forced to suffer and I wish him the best of luck," Vance wrote.
Governor Dannel Malloy, who has appointed Ireland to the state Parole Board, in a statement said he "is not only without bitterness, but is incredibly thoughtful, insightful and committed to public safety and service." (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Sandra Maler)