November 25, 2014 / 1:20 AM / 5 years ago

California man walks free after conviction overturned in 1978 murder

VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) - A California man who spent more than 30 years in prison for a 1978 murder walked free on Monday after a judge overturned his conviction based on new DNA analysis and investigative reports that were withheld from his defense.

Sandee Hanline holds on to the boots of her husband Michael Hanline, next to Justin Brooks (C), Director of California Innocence Project , as they watch Michael Lief, Senior Deputy District Attorney speak at Superior Court in Ventura, California November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The California Innocence Project, which worked for 15 years to win 69-year-old Michael Hanline’s freedom, said the case represented the oldest conviction to be reversed in the state.

Hanline, who Ventura County prosecutors said was released on $2,500 bail, took his first steps of freedom wearing jeans and a blue sweatshirt depicting the project’s logo - an image of a license plate emblazoned with “XONR8,” for exonerate.

“I feel like I’m on the front of a missile going through space and stuff is just flying by. It’s just incredible,” Hanline told reporters as he left the Ventura County jail.

Barrel-chested, with white hair pulled into a ponytail, Hanline appeared calm, saying he no longer felt angry about spending 36 years behind bars. He embraced his wife, Sandee Hanline, and clasped her hand to walk to her car for the drive home.

Prosecutors said their investigation was ongoing and that Hanline remained charged with the original crimes that led to his conviction. The case remains under investigation.

“It’s not about winning cases, it’s about trying to uncover the truth,” Ventura County Senior Deputy District Attorney Michael Lief said.

Hanline was convicted in 1980 of the murder of J.T. McGarry, a truck driver who ran events for people who sell used motorcycles, according to court papers. McGarry disappeared in November 1978, and was found shot to death days later by a highway.

Hanline, who worked security at the motorcycle sale events and was romantically involved with McGarry’s ex-girlfriend, was arrested on an unrelated charge that month after traveling to Northern California and using McGarry’s credit card.

He was charged with murder by prosecutors who suggested his motive was jealousy over McGarry’s on-again, off-again relationship with the ex-girlfriend.

But DNA analysis conducted at the request of the California Innocence Project found it matched the profile of an unidentified male, not Hanline. A magistrate judge also found that prosecutors at the time had failed to turn over relevant material to the defense.

Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney

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