Charges dismissed after man served 34 years of life sentence

AP News
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Posted: Apr 22, 2015 10:05 PM
Charges dismissed after man served 34 years of life sentence

VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — A California man who was freed after serving 34 years of a life sentence for murder had the charges formally dismissed Wednesday.

Michael Hanline, 69, was the longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated inmate in California history, according to the California Innocence Project, whose lawyers worked for 15 years to free him and persuaded prosecutors to re-examine the evidence.

Testing showed DNA found at the crime scene did not come from Hanline or his alleged accomplice. In addition, prosecutors withheld evidence that should have been disclosed to Hanline's legal team during the trial.

The conviction was based on "paper-thin evidence," said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project.

"He is 100 percent innocent," Brooks said outside court.

A Ventura County Superior Court judge dismissed the charges at the request of prosecutors, telling the courtroom it was done because the allegations can't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I feel good," Hanline said outside court. "Hopefully everything is going to be like it used to be.

"When I first got arrested, I figured it might take a year or two to get this all straightened around but not 36," he said, including two years he spent in jail after his arrest but before his conviction.

He added: "I never believed I'd spend the rest of my life in prison, but man, 36 years is a long, long time."

Hanline's conviction was overturned and he was freed from prison on Nov. 24 after prosecutors told a judge doubts had been raised about the case. However, he had been required to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and had faced the possibility of a retrial.

In requesting dismissal of the case, the district attorney's office argued against the judge issuing any finding that Hanline was innocent, contending that its case was still supported by probable cause.

Hanline was charged with the 1978 killing of a friend, Ventura resident J.T. McGarry. Prosecutors said Hanline and an accomplice kidnapped McGarry, shot him and dumped his body off of a highway.

Authorities believed Hanline was jealous because he and McGarry had been involved with the same woman.

Hanline's then-girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, was granted immunity and was a key witness at his trial. She testified that McGarry had skimmed thousands of dollars from motorcycle swap meets and that Hanline had threatened to "blow his brains out."

She also testified that Hanline left home with a handgun the night of the killing and returned muddy. Hanline said he worked on motorcycles at home all night except for leaving to get beer.

In 1980, Hanline was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Hanline, wearing a white beard and bald except for a fringe of hair and a white ponytail, appeared outside court with his wife, Sandy.

He has been riding a motorcycle since his release and complained that California roads had gotten bumpier during his years behind bars.

He also talked about "Buck Rogers" gadgets such as cellphones, and other changes.

"Gas isn't 32 cents and a pack of cigarettes isn't 30 cents," he said. "It's a whole new ball game."

Asked about his plans, he replied: "All I want to do is go fishing and ride my bike and spend time with Sandy and do a little gardening."

Hanline is at least the third person in recent years to be freed from a California prison after serving long sentences for murder.

Last fall Susan Mellen, a 59-year-old mother of three, was freed after spending 17 years in prison for the death of a homeless man in Lawndale. A Los Angeles County judge said she was convicted on the word of a liar.

In 2013, Kash Register was freed after spending 34 years in prison. The judge said prosecutors used false testimony from an alleged eyewitness.

In 2007, Timothy Atkins was freed after spending 20 years in prison for a 1987 robbery and murder in Los Angeles. A key witness who claimed she heard him confess recanted her testimony.