Michael Hanline had been waiting a long time when he found out in October 2010 that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California had recommended he be freed from prison after serving 33 years for a murder he didn’t commit.
Three years later he was still in prison waiting. But last week, the 68-year-old Ventura County resident paid his $2,500 bail, strapped a GPS tracking device onto his ankle and hobbled his way to freedom with the assistance of a cane. He was the longest-serving wrongly-convicted freed prisoner in California history.
Hanline was convicted in 1980 of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Ventura biker J.T. McGarry, a friend and business associated, whose body was found dumped at the side California 33 in Ojai. He got life without the possibility of parole. Hanline’s girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, delivered key testimony at trial that gave him motive and opportunity.
Bischoff, who received immunity for her testimony, said she had told Hanline about thousands of dollars McGarry and her had skimmed from motorcycle swap meets and that she had seen Hanline grab a gun and go out after threatening to kill the victim. Bischoff, who had an intimate relationship with both men, also testified that she smoked pot laced with PCP and did cocaine that night.
In fact, she testified that the cocaine she got from Hanline right after the shooting was different than his usual stash and similar to stuff McGarry was using. At one point during the trial, the judge adjourned court because she was high.
Still, justice was served and Hanline was sent away. His appeal for review of his case was denied by the California Supreme Court in April 1983.
It wasn’t until years later that lawyers for the Innocence Project took up the case and questions were raised about the evidence. Files were discovered that indicated evidence pointing to other perps had been suppressed. Hanline’s attorneys insist that defense attorney and “known drug dealer’ Bruce Robertson, who wasn’t involved in the case, had steered prosecutors he was friendly with toward Hanline to shift attention away from his own clients. Robertson is dead.
Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich found that there had been serious constitutional issues raised about evidence and the discovery process. He recommended that the conviction be overturned in October 2010 but six months later, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips rejected the report.
Ventura County prosecutors subsequently got involved and new DNA testing from the crime scene implicated an unknown man, not Hanline. Additional interviews by the D.A. implicated other people in the killing. The D.A.’s office filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Ventura County Superior Court seeking Hanline’s freedom and it was granted.
Hanline was freed Monday, three days after convicted murderer Ricky Johnson was exonerated and released from an Ohio prison after serving a record 39 years. The National Registry of Exonerations says it has found 1,480 exonerations in the United States since 1989.
The court will decide by February 27 if Hanline will be retried.