CRIME STORY has received permission to feature profiles of exonerees represented by the California Innocence Project (CIP). The CIP reviews more than 2,000 claims of innocence each year and since its founding in 1999 has secured the release of dozens of innocent people who may otherwise have spent the rest of their lives wrongfully incarcerated.
In November 1978, a biker named JT McGarry disappeared from his home in Ventura County, CA. A few days later, JT’s body was discovered: he had been shot multiple times and left on the side of a frontage road 25 to 30 miles from his home. As an investigation unfolded over the following weeks, Michael Hanline was arrested, convicted of JT’s murder, and ultimately sentenced to life without parole. Michael maintained his innocence and contacted the California Innocence Project as soon as they started reviewing cases — More than 20 years after his conviction.
Over years of investigation, CIP uncovered police reports that had been sealed before Michael’s trial. The reports showed that others, not Michael, had admitted to committing the crime at the time of the initial investigation but law enforcement had hidden these reports from Michael’s defense attorney. Other police reports that were never disclosed showed that a defense attorney and known drug dealer named Bruce Robertson — who represented many of the prosecution’s witnesses in other cases — had made concerted efforts to steer the investigation away from his clients and toward Michael Hanline. Robertson, who is since deceased, had threatened witnesses and intimidated them into testifying against Michael.
Before Michael’s trial, Robertson and the District Attorney’s Office asked the court for a secret hearing outside of the presence of Michael and his attorney. They convinced the court to allow these critical police reports to remain sealed, under the guise of protecting an anonymous informant. The sealed police reports came to light only after CIP took on the case.
On October 22, 2010, after a lengthy evidentiary hearing and complete review of all evidence in the case, US District Court Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich issued a report recommending that Michael’s 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.”
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that police or prosecutorial misconduct plays a role in the criminal convictions of more than half of innocent people who are later exonerated. Nearly all of this misconduct falls into five general categories: witness tampering, misconduct in interrogations, fabricating evidence, concealing exculpatory evidence, and misconduct at trial. Misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions rarely comes to light, and can cost innocent people like Michael decades of their lives.
After additional DNA testing and investigation by CIP and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, Michael’s conviction was reversed. On November 24, 2014, Michael was released from Ventura County Superior Court. At the time of his release, Michael was the longest wrongfully incarcerated individual in California history.