HALIFAX -- A Nova Scotia man who served 17 years in prison for murder was acquitted of the charge Friday after a two-decade struggle to prove he was wrongfully convicted of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend.

"I proved my innocence here today, after 21 years," Glen Assoun said as he emerged from a Halifax courtroom.

"I never gave up hope. I knew this day would come. I just didn't know when."

Inside the courtroom, his family cried quietly as the Crown dropped the case, effectively exonerating the 63-year-old in the 1995 murder of Brenda LeAnne Way.

Earlier in the day, federal Justice Minister David Lametti quashed the conviction, saying Assoun should be granted a new trial because he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

A few hours later, Assoun pleaded not guilty when the second-degree murder charge was read aloud in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Crown prosecutor Mark Scott then said, "There is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction."

The case was immediately dismissed.

Assoun was released on bail in November 2014, based on a preliminary assessment that determined he may have been wrongfully convicted.

"This is a momentous day in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia," Justice James Chipman told the court. "Glen Assoun, you maintained your innocence, you kept the faith with remarkable dignity ... (and) you are to be commended for your courage and resilience."

Philip Campbell, one of Assoun's lawyers, said his client has suffered greatly over the years.

"We have a belief in the factual innocence of Mr. Assoun," he said. "We hope the community of Halifax will welcome him back and embrace him as an innocent man."

Lametti's decision said a federal inquiry determined "relevant and reliable information" was never provided to Assoun during his trial in 1999.

"Promoting a fair and impartial criminal justice system that respects the needs of victims while protecting against potential miscarriages of justice is crucial to furthering Canadians' confidence in our justice system," Lametti said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Assoun The Canadian Press that the time he spent in prison robbed him of his health, damaged his family, and left him with recurring nightmares and mental illness.

"It was devastating to me. It affected my mind. It affected my overall health. I had several heart attacks in prison," the father of four said in an interview at his Halifax-area home.

"It took my youth from me -- all my younger years. Now I'm 63 and I'll never get back my health and the freedom they took from me ... Life passed me by."

On Sept. 17, 1999, Assoun was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of applying for parole for 18 years.

He spent the next 17 years behind bars.

That's six years longer than the 11 years Donald Marshall Jr. served for his wrongful conviction for murder in 1971. In 1990, the Mi'kmaq man was exonerated by a royal commission that found he was the victim of a criminal justice system marked by racism and incompetence.

The Assoun case began at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 12, 1995, when Way's partially clad body was discovered in a parking lot behind an aging apartment block in Dartmouth's north end.

She had suffered multiple stab wounds, her top had been pulled up and her throat was slashed. Court documents say she had been spotted earlier in the evening visiting a crack cocaine dealer.

At the time, Assoun was facing charges of assaulting Way. He was slated to appear in court about a month later.

He was arrested and jailed in March 1998, despite having an alibi.

The case against Assoun was based largely on the testimony of witnesses whose circumstantial evidence has since been questioned by lawyers who work to free the wrongfully convicted.

During his trial, he fired his lawyer. Though he told the judge he felt he needed counsel, Assoun ended up defending himself in the complex proceedings.

Disputes over the validity of the prosecution have been in the public domain for years.

Key to Assoun's defence was his alibi.

At one point during his 36-day trial in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, witness Isabel Morse testified that Assoun was staying with her on the night of the murder.

She testified she saw him in her apartment at 5 a.m. and that he was there when she awoke in the early afternoon.

The Crown countered the alibi with testimony from Margaret Hartrick, a friend of Way's, who gave statements to police in 1996 and 1998 and testified at a preliminary hearing that she saw Assoun at 4:15 a.m. on the night of the murder.

Hartrick also testified that Assoun told her Way was dead.

A prostitute and frequent crack cocaine user, Hartrick died before Assoun's trial began.

However, her videotaped testimony from the preliminary hearing was shown to the jury.

There was evidence from other witnesses that raised questions about her timeline and location.

Testimony from several witnesses alleging Assoun had confessed to the crime has also been questioned.

Assoun's nephew, Wayne Wise, who had a lengthy criminal record, testified that he asked Assoun during a telephone conversation if he had murdered Way. Assoun had replied "yes," he said.

The trial judge, Suzanne Hood, reminded the jury there was evidence that Wise had used crack on the day he'd called Assoun in British Columbia from a pay telephone at the Dartmouth mall.

There was also testimony that Wise, who was described as a "career criminal and cocaine addict," couldn't recall the correct area code, and that "he requested favours in exchange for his testimony."

Another Crown witness, David Carvery, described in court documents as a longtime criminal, claimed that Assoun had confessed to killing Way while the two men were cellmates in jail. Carvery gave his evidence in exchange for the Crown dropping one of his pending cocaine trafficking charges.

A third Crown witness, an 18-year-old prostitute, testified that she was cut and raped by a man who admitted to killing "Pitbull," which the court heard was Way's nickname. The woman said this was between March 1996 and November 1997, though she couldn't provide an exact date.

She identified the man as Assoun, based on seeing his photo on a television newscast the day after he was arrested and brought back from British Columbia on April 8, 1998.

However, the woman's account had to be weighed against evidence by Assoun's sister-in-law that at the time of the alleged rape, Assoun was living in British Columbia, the original trial heard.

A fourth witness, Mary (Tina) Cameron, testified that within four weeks of Way's murder, she heard Assoun tell Cathy Valade that he'd killed Brenda Way. Valade was a former girlfriend of Assoun's.

In her summary to the jury, the trial judge noted that Valade couldn't remember hearing the confession.

"In cross-examination, she (Valade) agreed that she had told the Crown in May of 1999 that ... Cameron was lying but that she also asked to be put under hypnosis in case her memory was suppressed," the judge wrote.

Assoun began fighting for his freedom while in jail, initially sending letters to American-Canadian boxer Rubin Carter -- who was wrongfully convicted of murder and exonerated -- and later having his case taken up by Innocence Canada lawyers.

They later applied to the federal Justice Department for a review, spending more than 12 years quietly battling for his release.

Assoun sought an appeal, but the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal dismissed his case on April 20, 2006.

However, the appeal court confirmed police were never able to find physical or forensic evidence for their homicide case.

A rusty knife with a broken blade tip was found near the scene more than a year after Way's death, but the courts acknowledged that forensic experts couldn't confirm the blood on it was Way's -- and there was no sign of Assoun's DNA.

The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed Assoun's application for leave to appeal on Sept. 14, 2006.

Assoun said a public inquiry should look into how police and prosecutors handled his case.