A wrongfully convicted man who spent 36 years behind bars in California was set free Monday.
In Ventura, Superior Court Judge Donald D. Coleman ordered Michael Ray Hanline, 68, to be released but required that he still wear a GPS monitoring device.
It was found that DNA evidence collected at the crime scene did not match Hanline’s or that of his alleged accomplice, according to court documents. Also, a key witness was found to be under the influence of drugs when she testified against him.
Hanline, who is the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in California, is expected to appear again in February for a pretrial hearing because prosecutors haven’t decided whether to retry him.
“It’s hard to believe,” Michael Hanline said after he emerged from the jail building Monday in Ventura. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, his white hair pulled into a ponytail, and walked with a cane.
When asked how he was feeling, Hanline replied, “A rush of emotions; it’s been a long time.” Holding his wife’s hand, he said he just wanted to go home and spend time with her. He called her “his rock.”
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 J.T. McGarry, also known as Mike Mathers.
But in addition to the 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.
The police reports could have been used to diminish Bischoff’s credibility or to suggest Hanline could have been framed for the slaying, but they were not disclosed to his defense attorneys at the time.
Prosecutors stated in court documents filed two weeks ago that interviews with several people over the last few months suggested other individuals had motives and the means to kill McGarry.
The interviews revealed that witnesses had been threatened and discouraged from cooperating with prosecutors, the documents said.
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 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.
At the time, 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 because of 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 Hanline should be released because of flaws during the trial, they said last week they were 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.”
Alex Simpson, an attorney with the California Innocence Project, which has worked on the case since 1999, said Hanline was “in shock” when he heard 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.”
Outside the courtroom Monday morning, Hanline’s wife, Sandee, said: “It’s been a roller coaster. ... I prayed that this day would come.”