On November 24, 2014, Michael Hanline walked out of the Ventura County jail a free man after serving 36 years for a murder he did not commit. The Ventura County District Attorney agreed to reversing Hanline’s conviction. Hanline is the longest wrongful incarceration in California history.
In November 1978, a biker named J.T. McGarry disappeared from his home in Ventura County, California. J.T.’s body was discovered a few days later. He had been shot multiple times and his body had been dumped on the side of a frontage road 25 to 30 miles from his home.
As an investigation unfolded over the coming weeks, Michael Hanline was arrested and ultimately convicted of J.T.’s murder. Michael has maintained his innocence ever since. As soon as the California Innocence Project started reviewing cases, Michael contacted the California Innocence Project, more than 20 years after his conviction.
Over years of investigation, the California Innocence Project was able to uncover police reports that had been sealed before Michael’s trial. The reports implicated others, not Michael, in the crime. Further, the police reports impeached the prosecution’s key witnesses. It turned out that a defense attorney and known drug dealer named Bruce Robertson who represented many of the prosecution’s witnesses in other cases, made concerted efforts to steer the investigation away from his clients and toward Michael. Robertson, who is since deceased, had threatened witnesses and intimidated them into testifying against Michael. Further, a witness placed Robertson at J.T.’s home the night he was killed.
Before Michael’s trial, Robertson and the Office of the District Attorney asked the court for a secret hearing outside of the presence of Michael and his attorney. They convinced the court to allow critical police reports to be sealed, under the guise of protecting an anonymous informant. The sealed police reports came to light only after the California Innocence Project took on the case.
On October 22, 2010, after a lengthy evidentiary hearing and complete review of all of the evidence in the case, United States District Court Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich issued a report in Michael’s case, recommending that his conviction be overturned. Judge Wistrich emphasized how the prosecution, investigators, and Robertson had colluded to violate Michael’s constitutional right to have exculpatory information turned over to the defense. Judge Wistrich wrote, “The prosecution was so successful in violating the trial court’s orders and its constitutional obligation that by the time the exculpatory evidence came to light – nearly three decades later – many of the important witnesses had died or disappeared . . . Permitting the prosecutor to engage in this sort of gamesmanship with impunity signals that the constitutional rules established in Brady and its progeny are merely ‘pretend rules’ that need not be taken seriously.” Unfortunately, the District Court Judge decided not to adopt the Magistrate’s recommendation.
Fortunately, after additional DNA testing and investigation by the California Innocence Project and Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, Hanline’s conviction was reversed. On November 24, 2014, Hanline was released from Ventura County Superior Court. He was the longest wrongful incarceration in California history.