This is the moment a Minnesota man who maintained his innocence throughout the 11 years he spent in prison was released.
Terry Olson, 57, faced spending another seven years in prison in Faribault after being convicted of murder in 2007 for the 1979 death of Jeff Hammill, whose body was found by the side of a road outside of Buffalo, according to the Innocence Project of Minnesota.
Despite evidence suggesting that his conviction in the first place was compromised, a judge rejected his request for a new trial. However, the Wright County Attorney’s Office then agreed to a deal that meant he would be released for time served.
“I am super relieved. This has been a long time coming,” Olson told WCCO, after embracing the attorneys and supporters who helped get him out. “I always had hope. They gave me that hope. You know, that’s what brought me through this.”
“I just want to go see my mom,” he added.
His release was the result of the work of his attorneys at Maslon LLP and the Innocence Project, who had been working with Olson and caught a break in 2012 when the key witness in his conviction admitted he’d made a false confession.
Olson’s attorneys are adamant that Hammill’s death wasn’t even a murder at all, and that it’s more likely he was hit by a piece of machinery driven by an unaware farmer.
How he came to be convicted
The investigation into Hammill’s death was initially closed in 1979, after interviews with more than 70 people yielded no clues, but it was reopened in 2003.
Investigators determined that Hammill, Olson, and Dale Todd had met at a bar in Rockford, Minnesota, on Aug. 10, 1979, and although they weren’t well acquainted with him, Olson and Todd agreed to give Hammill a ride home to Buffalo, the Star Tribune reports.
The three instead ended up going to a party at Olson’s sister’s house. As he didn’t have another ride home, Hammill started walking at 2:30 a.m., before he was found dead from head injuries on the side of a road by a Wright County Deputy.
The case was reclassified as murder in 2003, the Innocence Project says, when police extracted a confession from Todd – who was mentally ill – after telling him they had taken a baseball bat from his car that contained biological evidence he was involved in Hammill’s killing.
They had no such evidence, the Innocence Project says, but “Todd was so frightened and unstable” that he confessed, implicating Olson and another man, Ron Michaels, and accepted a plea deal if he testified against them.
Michaels was brought to trial in 2006 and found not guilty when Todd admitting to being coerced into falsely confessing and implicating Michaels and Olson.
But by the time Olson was brought to trial, Todd had again been convinced by police to revert to his original story, and Olson was sent to prison for 17 years.
Recantation and release
The Innocence Project says just days after Olson’s conviction, Todd wrote to the trial judge explaining he’d lied at Olson’s trial, but no hearing was held on this recantation.
Things started moving in 2012 when Todd contacted the Innocence Project after having gotten his mental illness under better control through medication, and he repeated that Olson and Michaels weren’t involved in Hammill’s death, and signed an affidavit confirming his “false, coerced confession.”
KSTP reports that Olson’s original public defenders also admitted they had given him poor representation at his trial, blaming a large caseload that caused them to miss crucial information.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals found no legal error in his conviction, though, and denied a request for a new trial, the TV station notes, at which point Olson filed for habeas corpus – which brings an unlawful arrest or imprisonment case to a federal court.
When the federal courts refused to dismiss Olson’s case, the Wright County Attorney’s Office agreed to push for his release based on time served if he dropped the habeas case.
“The fact is I believe he’s innocent. Terry has always maintained his innocence. There is not a shred of physical evidence to tie him to a murder if it was even a murder,” attorney Dave Schultz told WCCO.