Sometimes in recent months, Michael Wayne Hash would head out to his parents’ garage, where they’d moved most of the paperwork from his case into four giant plastic tubs and three chest-high filing cabinets, and he would read through the files his mother had meticulously organized: sentencing orders, affidavits, transcripts, opinions.

“I would love to see these gone,” he said earlier this summer. “But I don’t think we’ll ever stop talking about [the slaying] till it’s actually solved.”

On Monday, Hash walked out of the Culpeper County courthouse with the charges against him dismissed, 12 years after being wrongly convicted of murder. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, who had been brought in to reassess a case that has raised widespread concerns about deceit and misconduct, asked the judge to dismiss all charges and lift any legal constraints against him.

Now 31, Hash hugged his mother tightly when she burst into tears. He struggled for words as the decision began to sink in.

“It brings validity to what we’ve said all along,” Hash said, “that this was never right.”

What it does not do is solve the lingering question: Who murdered 74-year-old Thelma B. Scroggins?

The investigation, Morrogh said, isn’t over.

The crime

Hash was 15 in 1996 when Scroggins, an elderly church organist who lived in his neighborhood near Culpeper, was shot four times in the head. He was 19 when he and two friends were accused of killing her. Hash was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Hash was being wrongly held, citing extreme police and prosecutorial misconduct, such as coaching witnesses, failing to disclose a plea deal with a key witness and moving him to another county’s jail for two nights to expose him to a known snitch. The judge said Hash had made a convincing show of actual innocence.

Hash was released from prison to his parents’ home in Virginia, but the judge gave the commonwealth six months to decide whether to try Hash again.

So Hash has been waiting for this day, for Morrogh to deliver his decision.

Even as he has enjoyed the simplest of everyday freedoms — being able to close a door, eat with a fork, walk in the woods — he has been haunted by a sense of unreality, of disbelief, similar to what he had felt throughout the past 12 years.

All through his arrest and trials and imprisonment, he said, he kept thinking, “This is a nightmare I’m going to wake up from.”

Nor did the past six months feel real. “Maybe this is a good dream,” he used to think. “Maybe I will wake up and I’m still in prison.”

Reality check

The sense of unreality started, he said, when police woke him up at his grandmother’s trailer one morning in 2000, took him to a small interrogation room and slammed a three-foot-tall stack of binders onto a table. They showed him a videotape of a friend he had grown up with saying he had been there when Hash had killed someone.

When he was arrested, he said, all he could think was, “This can’t be happening.”

“It was almost like I was present, but I wasn’t,” he said.

Hash has maintained his innocence from the beginning.

There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime.

But one of the other suspects testified against him. (That suspect served nearly seven years in jail. Last year he recanted his testimony and said he had no reason to believe Hash had anything to do with the slaying.) An estranged cousin said she had heard the three teenage boys talking about the killing. And a drug dealer who was briefly in the same cellblock said Hash had confessed to the crime.

The third suspect, who police had said was the ringleader, had already been acquitted.

Throughout his trial, Hash said, he believed he would be acquitted: The stories didn’t add up. It seemed clear that witnesses were lying and that he knew nothing about Scroggins’s death.

Then he heard the verdict.

“Everything went blank,” he said. The next morning, he woke up in the “hole” — solitary confinement, where officers kept him on a 24-hour suicide watch in the days after the trial — when someone shoved a newspaper underneath the door with a bang. On the front page was a big picture of his face and the headline “Hash found guilty.”

He said that was when he realized he had not just woken up from a bad dream. He was awake. And it was real.

New resolve

It wasn’t until he got to state prison that Hash was able to snap out of a long period of depression. Another inmate told him he had to defend himself, “to get my hands on every document that I could pertaining to my case,” Hash said.

The thing that kept him going, he said, “was just my resolve that I was innocent. This was not going to be final. I was not going to accept it.”

Other people began to help. His mother found letters that raised doubts about one witness. Shawn Armbrust at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took on his case, and lawyers from a firm, Hunton & Williams, volunteered to help. Stanley Lapekas, an investigator with the firm, began digging into the original suspect in the case — even finding his gun, which could not be ruled out as the slaying weapon by state experts.

In February, Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk ruled that Hash was being wrongly held and that he had satisfied the legal standard for actual innocence. Turk cited problems with the investigation, the prosecution and Hash’s trial counsel, including the acknowledgment late last year by former Culpeper County sheriff Lee Hart and then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Gary Close that Hash had been moved to another jail in order to expose him to a known informant; that investigators had provided crime-scene information to at least one witness and guided answers to their questions; that two witnesses had failed polygraph tests and one had since recanted his testimony; and that there is significant evidence that another suspect may have committed the crime.

Morrogh was appointed special prosecutor and given six months to decide whether the commonwealth should retry Hash.

Still not free

From the moment he was released on bail, Hash knew he wasn’t really free.

“Culpeper still has him in the palm of their hand,” his mother, Pam Hash, said this spring.

He began slowly, slowly trying to get used to life outside prison — and learn how to be an adult.

His first trip to the grocery store, he was so staggered by the variety of foods available that they spent three hours there, his mother said. He went fishing. He started going with his parents to antique malls and bringing home small finds, such as a broken old laptop that he is now intent on fixing. He baked lasagna from scratch. He celebrated his 31st birthday with a big family party in April. He started taking photographs. He stockpiled bags of candy — Sour Patch Kids and Dum Dums and licorice — in a huge plastic tub under his bed. He started dating one of the only friends who stuck by him after his arrest. He went to a bluegrass concert. He talked his mother into riding a roller coaster. (She still regrets it.)

He began to think about possible careers; he had thought he might like to own a car-repair business someday, before he was locked up. Now he thinks he might make a pretty good lawyer.

Cellphones and computers have changed, people seem more rushed, and he is a whole lot less trusting than he used to be. That is part of what kept him thinking about the special prosecutor’s impending decision.

“You can understand his distrust in the system,” given the past 12 years, his attorney Matthew Bosher said. “So that was hanging over his head.”

Said Hash: “I learned that people will do horrible things under pressure, that pressure makes people do stupid things and make stupid decisions. I also learned that a lot of people are built differently than others. . . . A lot of people are susceptible to influence. That was a hard thing for me to understand.”

The players

Close, the commonwealth’s attorney who oversaw the case and who eventually admitted that he had discussed transferring Hash in order to expose him to the known informant, resigned in the days after the judge’s ruling. His second-in-command, Paul Walther, took his seat and is running for reelection against a challenger who says it is time for a clean slate.

The sheriff at the time, Hart, declined to comment on the case.

Scott Jenkins, one of the lead investigators, whose role the judge described as “outrageous misconduct . . . because it was intentional, and not merely negligent,” is now Culpeper County sheriff.

Jenkins has said in court documents that he had very serious concerns about the conviction of Hash. On Monday evening, he issued a statement saying that he could not defend his actions at this time without jeopardizing an open investigation but that he took issue with Turk’s opinion and that the department’s focus “is, and always has been, to seek justice for Thelma Scroggins.”

Hash and his family have talked, endlessly, about who did what, why people lied, why the initial suspect was never detained. Hash said he hopes people will be held accountable, that the public will see the truth.

“The priority to me is proving to everyone that I’m innocent and righting everything else that’s wronged,” he said. “If I can do that without ruining someone’s life, then that’s the path I prefer.”

Most of all, over the past few months, he waited.

“We just can’t wait for it to be over,” said his father, Jeff Hash. “He has a new life to start.”

It felt terrible walking into the courthouse Monday morning, Mike Hash said; he used to sit in his jail cell and look out the tiny window and dread his appearances there during his first appeals. He sat in a pinstriped suit Monday and stared straight ahead, swallowing occasionally as he listened to Morrogh.

After the judge spoke, Pam Hash said, “I wanted to clap. I wanted to holler.” But they had been given such stern instructions about silence in the courtroom that she was afraid to make a peep.

Once outside, though, she said, “There are not enough words to say how happy I am.”

When asked about the ongoing investigation — Morrogh did not rule out charges against Hash in the future — she said she was glad Morrogh was continuing to try to find Scroggins’s killer. “All my family feels the same way,” she said.

Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding said he hoped that the people who helped bring about Hash’s conviction would be brought to justice, as well.

Mike Hash had trouble taking it all in.

“I sat in prison 12 years planning out everything I could do” when released. But now, he said, “honestly, I don’t know.”

His girlfriend hugged him, and he kissed her forehead.

Then standing outside the courthouse with family and friends — a free man who badly wants to know who killed Thelma Scroggins — Hash was able to laugh.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, “before we get arrested for causing a public disturbance.”