Man wrongfully convicted of Ventura County killing to be released

A man wrongfully convicted of a Ventura County killing will be released after serving 36 years in prison

A man who has spent more than 36 years behind bars for murder was wrongfully convicted and is expected to be released next week. But prosecutors, who said newly tested DNA evidence does not match the man, are leaving the door open for a new trial.

Michael Ray Hanline, 68, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1978 shooting death of Ventura resident J.T. McGarry, also known as Mike Mathers.

Prosecutors alleged at the time that Hanline was in a "love triangle" with McGarry. Hanline was convicted and sentenced in 1980 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But according to Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory D. Totten, new evidence "casts doubt" on the verdict. DNA evidence collected at the crime scene does not match Hanline's or that of his alleged accomplice, according to court documents.

Several sealed police reports also were uncovered that cast doubt on testimony by Hanline's then-girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, who was granted immunity and was a key witness during the trial.

The police reports could have been used to diminish Bischoff's credibility, or to suggest that Hanline could have been framed for the slaying, but were not disclosed to Hanline's defense attorneys at the time.

Prosecutors also stated in court documents filed last week that interviews with several people over the last few months suggest other individuals had motives and the means to kill McGarry. The interviews also revealed that witnesses had been threatened and discouraged from cooperating with prosecutors, the documents said.

McGarry disappeared on Nov. 10, 1978. His body was found two days later off California 33 with two .38-caliber gunshot wounds.

Bischoff testified that she had complained that McGarry still had thousands of dollars she and the victim had skimmed from motorcycle swap meets. She said that Hanline told her that there was a contract out on McGarry and that he'd "blow his brains out." Bischoff also said she had seen Hanline leave home with a .38- caliber gun the night of the killing, and that he had returned wet and muddy.

Hanline said he had been home all night working on motorcycles, leaving only to get beer.

Bischoff testified that she had been smoking pot laced with PCP and had used cocaine the night of the slaying. She was also under the influence of drugs during the trial, according to court documents, and the judge had to adjourn court as a result.

Prosecutors also presented as evidence that some of McGarry's belongings had been found in a stolen van that Bischoff, Hanline and his alleged accomplice, Dennis "Bo" Messer, had been driving. Police said the trio used McGarry's credit card to pay for a hotel room on their way to San Francisco.

Messer was never charged due to a lack of evidence.

A federal judge recommended in 2010 that Hanline's conviction be set aside, and that he be retried. But a U.S. District Court judge refused that recommendation. Last week, a Ventura County Superior Court judge set aside the conviction and sentence.

While prosecutors agree that Hanline should be released due to flaws at the trial, they say they're not ready to drop the case.

"The conviction integrity process has not concluded that Hanline is factually innocent," the district attorney's office said in a statement. Prosecutors "will continue to evaluate the evidence to determine how to proceed."

The California Innocence Project, which has worked on Hanline's case since 1999, says Hanline would be the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in state history to be released.

Alex Simpson, an attorney with the project representing Hanline, says his client was "in shock" when he broke the news. "I think it still hasn't really sunk in yet," Simpson said. "What we're talking about is just an unbelievably profound change."

Now, 34 years later, the case will be tougher to prosecute, Simpson said. People have moved away or died, and witnesses "will likely not remember the same things that they testified to years ago, just because of the passage of time…. We are very hopeful that the district attorney drops the charges" quickly.

Hanline is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing Monday, where his bail and a new retrial date could be set.

Twitter: @cmaiduc

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times