Rae Carruth is a free man. The former NFL wide receiver was released from prison Monday after serving more than 18 years for conspiring to murder a woman who was pregnant with his child.

The Carolina Panthers’ 1997 first-round draft pick was released from Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, N.C., after completing his sentence of 18 to 24 years.

He did not speak to reporters as he left prison. There was a smattering of applause when he got into a white SUV and was whisked away and taken to an undisclosed location.

Carruth, 44, will be on a nine-month post-release program. He would need special permission from a case officer to leave North Carolina or the country during that time but is free to go wherever he pleases after nine months.

Carruth was found guilty of orchestrating a plot to kill Cherica Adams on Nov. 16, 1999, in Charlotte to avoid paying child support. She was shot four times while driving her car but managed to make a 911 call that helped implicate Carruth. Adams went into a coma and died less than a month later.

The baby, Chancellor Lee Adams, was delivered by emergency cesarean section; he has permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy.

Carruth has never admitted guilt, but in a complex 15-page letter to WBTV-TV in February he wrote that, “I feel responsible for everything that happened. And I just want [Saundra Adams, Chancellor’s grandmother] to know that truly I am sorry for everything.”

Last week, Carruth told WSOC-TV in Charlotte in a telephone interview, “I just truly want to be forgiven.”

He went on to say he was “somewhat frightened” about his release, adding that “I’m nervous just about how I’ll be received by the public. I still have to work. I still have to live. I have to exist out there and it just seems like there is so much hate and negativity toward me.”

Carruth has repeatedly said he wants to have a relationship with his son, who remains in the custody of the young man’s grandmother, Saundra Adams, who has raised him since birth. Adams had previously said she would be there when Carruth got out of prison, but she was not present Monday.

Carruth’s arrest on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder nine days after the shooting sent shock waves throughout the Panthers’ organization.

The team released Carruth and the NFL suspended him indefinitely after he fled the Charlotte area after posting $3 million bail and was found by federal authorities hiding in the trunk of a car in Tennessee, about 500 miles from Charlotte.

Panthers center Frank Garcia played with Carruth for more than two seasons. He said players were stunned when they heard the news of Carruth’s possible involvement in the murder.

“It would be like finding out the guy sitting in the cubicle next to you at work was arrested for murder,” Garcia said. “You just don’t always know people as well as you think you do.”