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.
FOR THE RECORD
4:30 p.m. PST: An earlier version of this post said Hanline is 69 years old. He is 68.
Prosecutors alleged at the time that Hanline was in a "love triangle" with Mathers. Hanline was convicted and sentenced in 1980 to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury found him guilty of the murder charge and a special circumstance that he committed it in the course of a burglary.
But according to Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory D. Totten, new evidence has emerged that "casts doubt upon" the verdict. DNA evidence collected at the crime scene does not match Hanline's or his alleged accomplice, according to court documents.
Several sealed police reports also were uncovered. The reports 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 suggest that Hanline could have been framed for the murder, but were not disclosed to Hanline's defense attorneys at the time.
Ventura County prosecutors also revealed in court documents filed last week that interviews with several people over the last few months suggest several 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.
Mathers disappeared on Nov. 10, 1978. Police found his body two days later off Highway 33 with .38-caliber gunshot wounds to his neck and chest.
Bischoff, who was living with Hanline in the San Fernando Valley at the time, testified in court that she had complained to him that Mathers still had thousands of dollars of money she and the victim had skimmed from motorcycle swap meets they'd helped run.
On the witness stand, Bischoff said Hanline had told her that there was a contract out on Mathers and that he'd "blow his brains out." Bischoff also said she'd seen Hanline leaving their home with a .38 caliber gun the night of the murder, something she'd denied in earlier testimony, and that he'd returned wet and muddy.
Hanline claimed he had been home all night working on motorcycles in his garage, leaving only briefly to get some beer.
Bischoff testified that she had been smoking pot laced with PCP and had used cocaine the night of the murder. Bischoff was also under the influence of drugs during trial, according to court documents, and the judge had to adjourn court as a result.
In addition to her testimony, prosecutors presented as evidence the fact that some of Mathers' belongings had been discovered in a stolen van that Bischoff, Hanline, and his alleged accomplice, Dennis "Bo" Messer had been driving.
Police had said the three had gone to Mathers' home the day his body was discovered so Bischoff, who had been living there, could pick up her belongings. They later used Mathers' credit card to pay for a hotel room on their way to San Francisco.
A judge later determined that there wasn't enough evidence to try Messer. Bischoff, who was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony, never faced charges, either.
A federal judge recommended in 2010 that Hanline's conviction be set aside, and that he be retried. But a U.S. district judge refused the recommendation in 2011, prosecutors say. Last week, a Ventura County superior court judge set aside the conviction and sentence, scheduling a court hearing for Nov. 24.
While prosecutors agree that Hanline should be released due to "flaws" in the trial, they say they're not ready to drop the case yet.
"At the present time, the conviction integrity process has not concluded that Hanline is factually innocent," the district attorney's office said in a statement. "The district attorney will continue to evaluate the evidence to determine how to proceed."
Michael Schwartz, a prosecutor on the case, says the Ventura County district attorney's office plans to ask for a retrial date to be set several months from now, while they continue investigating.
"It's an ongoing and active investigation at this point," Schwartz said, and new effort has been put into the case since the DNA results came in. New arrests could still be made in the case, Schwartz said.
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.
"It's amazing that Mike will finally be released after 36 years of wrongful incarceration," said Justin Brooks, the director of the project at California Western School of Law, in a statement. "It's time for him to get back to his family and his life."
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 told The Times on Wednesday. "What we're talking about is just an unbelievably profound change."
Simpson said that despite what prosecutors say, he believes Hanline is innocent. "Ever since we started looking into this case, it just never really made sense to us," Simpson said.
Now, 34 years after he was convicted, the case will probably be even tougher to prosecute, he added. "What we've got now is people who have moved away, people who have passed on, witnesses who 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 as quickly as possible."
According to Rebecca Silbert with the California Wrongful Convictions Project at the UC Berkeley School of Law, the only other inmate to serve as long for a wrongful conviction in California was Kash Delano Register, who was released in 2013 after spending more than 34 years in prison.
Hanline is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing Monday, where his bail and a new date for retrial could be set.