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Wrongfully Convicted Man Released After 36 Years In Prison

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A man who has spent the last 36 years in prison will be likely be released today as his conviction for murder has been overturned. Michael Ray Hanline, now 68, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. He has served the longest sentence in the state of California for a wrongful conviction, L.A. Times reports.

Two years before that conviction, on Nov. 10, 1978, a truck driver named J.T. McGarry disappeared in Ventura. Two days later, his body was found off Highway 33 in Ojai. He'd been shot twice with a .38-caliber gun.

None of the DNA evidence at the crime scene matched Hanline's, nor did it match Dennis "Bo" Messer, who police believed to be Hanline's accomplice. And the key witness who named Hanline the killer was a known drug user, who confessed to being high the night of the murder and who was on drugs even during the trial. She was also granted immunity for her testimony, something that prosecutors never told the defense.

The California Innocence Project has been working Hanline's case since 1999, and a federal judge wanted Hanline's conviction set aside in 2010 and called for a retrial. However, a U.S. District Court Judge denied that recommendation. A Ventura Superior County Judge set aside the conviction and sentence only last week.

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In 1978, Hanline was living with this then-girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, in the San Fernando Valley. Bischoff was also McGarry's ex-girlfriend. McGarry—who also used the alias Michael Mathers—dabbled in drug dealing and also ran motorcycle swap meets for Easyrider Magazine, Huffington Post reports. Bischoff helped McGarry run these meets, and together, they skimmed money off the top. Bischoff claimed McGarry owed her thousands from their scam.

The night McGarry was murdered, Hanline claimed that he had been home fixing up motorcycles. He said he had only left to go pick up some beer. But Bischoff had a different version of Hanline's quiet night at home.

Bischoff said that she had complained to Hanline about the money McGarry owed her, and that Hanline told her that there was a contract out for McGarry. Bischoff testified that Hanline told her he was going to "blow [McGarry's] brains out." She said she saw Hanline leave with a .38-caliber gun and that when he came home later, he was covered in mud.

McGarry had plenty of people in his life who might have wanted him dead. He was involved with motorcycle gangs and drugs. Ventura County prosecutors recently filed court documents indicating that several people with potential motives had been threatened and pushed away from cooperating with police or prosecutors.

Prosecutors ended up honing in on Hanline when he was arrested on another charge. By this time, he had left for Northern California and along the way, used McGarry's credit card, court papers said.

Prosecutors alleged that Hanline was jealous of Bischoff's relationship with McGarry. They also said he had an accomplice named Dennis "Bo" Messer. While Messer was never charged due to a lack of evidence, prosecutors found some of McGarry's property in a stolen van that Bischoff, Hanline and Messer were driving, which they used as evidence. Police also said that the three had gone to McGarry's home after he had been murdered so that Bischoff could pick up some things she'd left there, and that the three then used McGarry's credit card to pay for a hotel room while on the way to San Francisco.

Bischoff had admitted to being under the influence of marijuana, PCP and cocaine the night McGarry was killed, and court documents show she had also been using during the trial.

Back in 1978, investigators just didn't have the kind of technology they do today. This year, however, Ventura County prosecutors were able to re-test evidence from the crime scene. They found DNA from an unknown man—not Hanline, and not Messer.

"[Hanline's] conviction has been reversed, and the D.A. has specifically said that based on the evidence that they had, he should have never been convicted," Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project and a professor at the California Western School of Law, said.

Though there is a court date where the D.A. will be able to decide dismiss or retry the case, Brooks said that there is no evidence with which to retry Hanline.

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"All the evidence that was introduced back in 1978 was disputed and it is false," Brooks said. "And on top of that, we have this DNA evidence that points to another suspect, so [Hanline] is going to be fully exonerated."

Hanline's release follows that of Susan Mellen, who served 17 years for the murder of an ex-boyfriend in Lawndale. She was put away based on the testimony of a known liar, and was released in October. On Friday, Mellen was declared factually innocent, ABC 7 reports.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a quote from Justin Brooks clarifying the status of the case.

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