When he first stepped outside, Michael Hanline looked up at the sky as if for the first time.
Wearing a dark sweatshirt with “XONER8" across the front, his white hair pulled into a ponytail and a cane in hand, California’s longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate walked out of jail Monday a free man.
His wife, Sandee, had brought him his cowboy boots, which she had kept clean and shiny over the last three decades, but they would not fit over his GPS ankle bracelet. Instead, he wore white sneakers.
Hanline, 69, was released from the Ventura County jail after most recently serving time at California State Prison, Solano, ending a 15-year effort by his attorneys with the California Innocence Project and his wife to free him after he was convicted in 1980 of murdering his friend and associate J.T. McGarry.
“I feel like I’m in front of a missile and things are just flying by,” Hanline said, holding Sandee’s hand outside the jail. “It’s incredible.”
The Ventura County district attorney’s office said in court documents two weeks ago that interviews with several people over the last few months suggested others had motives and the means to kill McGarry and acknowledged the case against Hanline was flawed.
“We were no longer comfortable with the conviction,” Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Lief said Monday after Superior Court Judge Donald Coleman approved Hanline’s release.
Hanline was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1980, two years after the shooting death of Ventura resident McGarry, also known as Mike Mathers.
But in addition to DNA evidence that didn’t match, several sealed police reports 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.
Hanline’s release comes as the pace of overturned convictions appears to be accelerating nationwide with more DNA testing and awareness of other problems, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses or false confessions.
Last week, an Ohio man was freed after more than 39 years in prison for a murder conviction after an eyewitness recanted — a record number of years served behind bars by an innocent man, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Last year was a record year for exonerations with 91 overturned convictions, according to the registry, which is run by the University of Michigan Law School. A total of 87 have been logged so far this year.
A Torrance judge last week declared Susan Mellen “factually innocent” of the murder of a transient man for which she served 17 years in prison, calling her case “a failure of the criminal justice system.” Mellen, the judge found, was convicted on the word of a “habitual liar.”
In Los Angeles, Timothy Atkins was declared innocent this summer of his conviction for murder and robbery of a flower shop owner when a witness recanted.
The flurry of exonerations has led prosecutors in several parts of the country to launch their own efforts to review such claims. Local district attorneys’ offices in Dallas and Brooklyn as well as federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., have each started “conviction integrity units.”
In the Ventura County case, McGarry disappeared on Nov. 10, 1978, and his body was found two days later off California 33 in Ojai with two .38-caliber gunshot wounds.
Bischoff testified she had complained that McGarry still had thousands of dollars she and the victim had skimmed from motorcycle swap meets. She said Hanline told her there was a contract out on McGarry and that Hanline would “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 on the night of the slaying. She was also under the influence of drugs during the trial, according to court documents, forcing the judge to adjourn court at one point.
Lief said Monday that the district attorney’s office will continue to investigate the McGarry slaying. Prosecutors have until May 29 to determine if Hanline will face a retrial.
He was released on $2,500 bail and will have to wear a GPS monitor at least until his next court date in February. He also was ordered by Coleman to have no contact with five people linked to the case.
“The system failed on this one,” said Justin Brooks, executive director of the California Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law in San Diego. “He spent 36 years for a crime in a prosecution that never should have happened.”
Hanline was released into a world he will scarcely recognize. At the time he was sent to prison, Jimmy Carter was president and the Internet did not exist.
“In the age of technology and that stuff, I’m a dinosaur,” he said.
He said he was looking forward to fishing and spending time with his wife in Paso Robles, where she lives. He called her “his rock.”
“I’m ecstatic I’m going home with her today,” he said outside the courthouse, thanking his attorneys and expressing hope that other wrongfully convicted inmates would be released.
“I didn’t think what happened to me could happen in America, but it did,” he said.
Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.