Imagine facing 50 years behind bars for a crime you did not commit. That’s what Kenneth Ireland, 40, of Wallingford, Conn., had to live with for 21 years until last August, when DNA testing proved his innocence and secured his release.

Ireland addressed an audience of about 60 law students at Yale Law School Wednesday night, along with Karen Goodrow, his attorney and director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, an independent non-profit organization that works to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes through DNA testing. Ireland discussed his wrongful conviction, the significance of the Innocence Project and his life since his release in a talk sponsored by the Capital Innocence Project and the American Constitution Society of Yale Law School.

In November 1989, at the age of 20, Ireland was convicted of raping and murdering a lone night-worker at a Wallingford factory. The witnesses in Ireland’s trial said he had confessed to the crime, while Ireland claimed the witnesses only wanted the $20,000 reward, Ireland said Wednesday.

He was imprisoned from age 18 to 40.

“That’s when you build your family, your career, children — that’s basically your life,” he said.

In 2007, the Connecticut Innocence Project began working to prove Ireland’s innocence, after one of his former lawyers referred the case to the organization, Goodrow said.

Ireland is one of 245 people in the last 15 years whose names have been cleared through the Innocence Project, according to Professor Steven Duke LAW ’61, who introduced Goodrow and Ireland.

Wednesday’s speakers attributed Ireland’s wrongful conviction to the tunnel vision of the investigators involved.

“I don’t believe tunnel vision is a purposeful thing,” Ireland said. “The majority of officers have good intent. In my case, there was a lot of public pressure to solve the crime. It was literally the same day the newspaper article came out with the reward that these people came up and said, ‘We know who did it.’ ”

Goodrow explained that the DNA evidence that exonerated Ireland came from a vaginal swab from the victim. The evidence had existed all along, but until the Innocence Project revisited his case, no one had examined it, Goodrow said. To date, the DNA has not helped to identify the true perpetrator.

In addition to tunnel vision, Ireland said public defenders do not have enough time to spend with clients to adequately develop a good defense.

“The first time [representatives from the Innocence Project] came to see me was more time than any of my lawyers had ever spent with me including trial time,” Ireland said. “It’s a broken system that needs to be fixed.”

After securing his release, the Innocence Project helped Ireland adjust to life outside of prison, helping him to get a job, he said. Ireland currently works for the Bloomfield Board of Education as an intervention specialist for students who were expelled from high school, he said.

Ireland said he has been embracing life since his exoneration.

“I walk into shopping stores and am amazed by the colors and things,” he said. “I’m non-stop energy and everything is brand new. I hope the brand new feeling never goes away.”

Three Yale law students interviewed said they were struck by both Ireland’s situation and the problems with the American legal system.

“I think his story speaks to the importance and necessity of having good lawyers who decide to spend their careers serving the public,” Will Bornstein LAW ’11 said, “especially those members of the public with the least amount of power.”

Ireland’s release is the Connecticut Innocence Project’s third in three years using DNA analysis, Duke said.