The family of Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith is anxious for his return to their St. Louis area home.

On Thursday, a Philippine appeals court overturned Smith’s 2006 rape conviction, ordering him released from custody on the U.S. Embassy grounds in Manila, where he was being held during the lengthy appeals process.

"We are overjoyed and elated at the comforting news our family has waited 3½ years to receive," Smith’s father, Jim, said in a statement e-mailed Friday to Stars and Stripes.

"Our son, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, was acquitted of all charges and freed to return to the United States," he said.

"While our family is excited about this news we are most happy for Dan, who has returned to his life as a Marine until the process is completed for his release from service."

Smith was serving with the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit that was deployed at the time to the Philippines for joint training with Philippines forces.

The court’s decision came a little more than a month after the alleged victim in the case signed an affidavit stating she now doubts Smith raped her.

In a five-page statement, the woman, now 25 and known publicly only as "Nicole," said she might have been too drunk to know what she was doing Nov. 1, 2005, when she partied with Smith and other Marines in a Subic Bay nightclub and had later had sex with him in a van.

She has since moved to the U.S. with her American boyfriend, according to her mother.

In December 2006, Smith was found guilty and sentenced to a minimum of 40 years in prison. Three other Marines who allegedly cheered Smith on while he had sex with Nicole inside the van were acquitted after the seven-month trial.

Smith, now 23, contended the sex was consensual.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila said Smith left the Philippines soon after the court’s decision. Marines on Okinawa said late Friday that Smith will be returning to the U.S. but that his location is being withheld for now.

"This has been a difficult and emotional case for all involved, especially their families and loved ones," an embassy release said. "We hope that the parties can now move on with their lives."

Smith’s father said he had believed the appeals process would result in an acquittal.

"We were confident in the United States Government the entire time and trusted that Dan was safe in the hands of our military, which he proudly serves," he said. "While we are uncertain when Dan will be back in St. Louis, we have talked to him and he is doing well and is anxious to put this behind him.

"We appreciate all of the kindness, thoughts and prayers we have received throughout all of this and are happy that justice was ultimately done and Dan is coming home."

In a response to a Stripes query, 2nd Lt. Scott Sasser, a media relations officer for Marine Corps Bases Japan, said Smith is still considered to be on active duty.

Whether he faces any legal action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice has not been determined.

"These issues will be discussed after Lance Cpl. Smith is reunited with his family," Sasser said in an e-mail.

He directed all other questions to the embassy.

In its 71-page decision, the Philippine Court of Appeals ruled that what occurred between Smith and Nicole was not rape, but "the unfolding of a spontaneous, unplanned romantic episode with both parties carried away by their passions and stirred up by the urgency of the moment caused probably by alcoholic drinks." Said the court: "No evidence was introduced to show force, threat and intimidation applied by the accused."

According to press accounts in the Philippines, the court said it was not influenced by Nicole’s recantation.

The court’s decision sparked protests Thursday and Friday at the appeals court and the U.S. Embassy in Manila and drew angry statements from women’s rights organizations.

Representative Liza Maza of the Gabriela Women’s Party said she was disheartened, but not surprised at Smith’s acquittal. In an interview Thursday night with GMA News, a Philippine news and broadcasting company, she said the acquittal was part of a "grand scheme" by the U.S. and Philippine government officials to "save Smith and justify the Visiting Forces Agreement."

That drew sharp criticism from Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, the country’s top jurist, who said such comments insulted the justice of the court of appeals.

Gonzalez told GMA News that the Court of Appeal’s ruling was sound and noted that three female judges backed the acquittal.

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