MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee inmate who won a chance to clear his name after a judge vacated his homicide conviction last year instead made an agonizing decision: to plead guilty to a lesser homicide charge in exchange for his immediate freedom, his lawyers said Wednesday.

The decision means Seneca Malone remains a convicted felon in the eyes of the law. But it also means the 27-year-old, who has always maintained his innocence, is a free man.

A jury convicted Malone in 2008 of first-degree intentional homicide in the shooting death of Ricardo Mora three years earlier. Malone was sentenced to life in prison.

His conviction was overturned late last year after the Wisconsin Innocence Project successfully argued that his public defender mounted a bungled defense. Malone was granted a new trial, but instead of pleading his case to another jury he agreed to plead no contest Friday to a reduced charge of negligent homicide. That charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years, time he has already served.

He was freed from prison Tuesday, according to his defense attorney, Jerome Buting.

The state's case was weak, Buting said, but Malone recognized that a new jury could have reached a wrong decision as well.

"He elected to walk now rather than face the risk of spending the rest of his life in prison," Buting said in a statement Wednesday.

After Mora was killed in 2005, police made no immediate arrests. The investigation went dormant for about two years but was revived in early 2008 when detectives questioned another man as a suspect during an interrogation that lasted about 10 hours.

The suspect, Mark Fossier, repeatedly denied any knowledge of the homicide. But when officers told him Malone and others had implicated him as the shooter, Fossier eventually named Malone as the man who pulled the trigger.

Malone didn't testify in his own defense, and his public defender called no witnesses. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison. The soonest he could have been eligible for parole was in 2055, when he would be 70.

Eventually his case was taken up by the Innocence Project, a program through the University of Wisconsin law school that works to free wrongfully convicted inmates. Innocence Project attorney Ion Meyn said the group's law students uncovered evidence that cast doubt on Fossier's testimony.

For example, Fossier claimed that at the time of the shooting a friend was cutting Fossier's hair on the friend's front porch, Meyn said. However, Innocence Project attorneys said they found weather data showing the temperature that day was 9 degrees.

They also found utility records and rent statements showing that the friend had moved away from the house four months earlier, to a new house that didn't have a porch large enough for someone to sit for a haircut, Meyn said.

A judge agreed in November to vacate Malone's original conviction. Malone was to face a new jury trial next month, until he took the plea deal.

"It's pretty agonizing to sit there and basically gamble with the chance that the jury gets it wrong," Meyn said. "We thought the state should have dismissed the case."

Grant Huebner, the Milwaukee County prosecutor on the case, told The Associated Press he had no comment.

A message left with Fossier was not immediately returned.

Meyn said Malone was grateful for a fresh start and was eager to settle down and find a job.

"He wants to start a new life," Meyn said. "Five years in prison was horrible for him, but he's young — he has his whole life ahead of him."