With his murder conviction overturned after 36 years behind bars, Michael Ray Hanline is the longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner in California’s history. Charged with the 1978 murder of writer J.T. McGarry, Hanline was exonerated last year after DNA evidence from duct tape used to tie up the deceased linked another man to the crime.
Hours after his emotional exit from the Ventura County Jail in 2014, Hanline can be seen in a video taking a bite of a Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburger—one he’d been craving after seeing the commercial. “My, oh, my,” he says after taking a bite. “So that’s what meat tastes like?”
One year after his release, Hanline is back in the spotlight—this time for a lawsuit he filed himself.
In a complaint dated Nov. 13, Hanline requests damages from the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department for “violating his civil rights” by wrongfully imprisoning him. His claim is based on allegations that the two organizations “suppressed documents” showing his innocence and manipulated witnesses in order to frame him.
“His conviction was the product of misconduct on the part of various governmental actors,” his lawyer, Jan Stiglitz, told The Daily Beast in an email. “[Actors] working in conjunction with an individual who we believe to have been involved with the murder that Mike served time for.”
The complaint recounts the murder for which Hanline was convicted. The story dates back to January 1977 when Hanline met McGarry at a motorcycle-oriented swap meet.
Employed by Paisano Publications at the time, McGarry was there to promote Easy Rider Magazine, a job for which he received commission. After meeting, the two decided to team up and travel the country where they could organize swap meets where McGarry would promote the magazine and Hanline would work security.
On the trip, McGarry brought his “on again/off again” girlfriend Mary Bischoff, who kept track of the profits he made from promoting Easy Rider. Over the course of the next year, Hanline and Bischoff became romantically involved and, according to the lawsuit, moved in together when the three returned to California. Her relationship with McGarry, it says, never quite ended.
When McGarry went missing on Nov. 10, 1978, questions as to his whereabouts swirled. Two days later, Ventura County Police found the 37-year-old’s body in a ravine off California’s Route 33 with multiple bullet wounds to the neck and chest, and duct tape around his right wrist. After an “informant” called the police to say that Bischoff told him Hanline and another friend were responsible for the murder, the two were arrested on Dec. 9.
The case went to trial in June 1980, with McGarry’s ex-lover Bischoff as the “star witness.” Her version of events differed from the informant’s—but thanks to a private pretrial meeting between the judge and a criminal defense attorney named Bruce Robertson, a known drug dealer and “close personal friend” of McGarry’s, the original testimony had been sealed. Without it, Bischoff’s version of events—which she was coached through by Robertson in a taped police interview—reigned supreme.
Bischoff claimed that Hanline went out the night McGarry disappeared “carrying a .38-caliber pistol” and returned “dirty and sweaty and [with vomit on his clothes].” The prosecution claimed that Hanline killed McGarry because “the two were in a love triangle with Bischoff.”
Based mostly on Bischoff’s first-person account, Hanline was convicted of the murder in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Once behind bars, Hanline filed three petitions claiming that his rights under the constitution had been violated, citing misconduct on the part of the investigators. In November of last year, after a thorough review of the evidence, interviews with individuals involved, and a DNA test of the duct tape, the district attorney’s office conceded the merits of his petition.
“These interviews suggest that persons other than the petitioner also had motives and means to kill the victim,” the DA’s office wrote (PDF). “These interviews, together with evidence from the in camera hearings discussed above and the federal habeas evidentiary hearing, also suggest that witnesses were manipulated and threatened and discouraged from cooperating with the prosecution or with the Innocence Project.”
Judge Andrew Wistrich ruled that there had in fact been numerous exculpatory documents suppressed and “serious discovery-related constitutional violations.” Hanline’s complaint takes this ruling and turns it on its head, using these exact statements to sue the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department for failing to disclose all of the evidence.
The amount of evidence in Hanline’s favor that was suppressed is significant, to say the least.
Two weeks before McGarry’s disappearance in November of 1978, he reportedly went to his ex-wife Gail Stanley and expressed fear that he was in danger. McGarry had been caught embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from Paisano and was “scared, worried, and agitated” by his former colleagues. He told her he “worried what might happen if he stayed in town.”
Stanley was never called to the witness stand in the case, despite having incredibly relevant details about the weeks leading up to McGarry’s murder. According to Hanline’s lawsuit, she was visited by two prosecutors pretrial and told they were “desperate” to convict Hanline. They said that employees at Paisano had killed McGarry to “make an example of him,” but that they were going to stick with the love triangle Hanline story in order to convict him.
Outside of Stanley’s testimony, two other documents were also left out of the investigation—both of which directly contradicted Bischoff’s testimony.
The first report, 14 pages long, was dated Oct. 23, 1978, and ended May 9, 1979, right before the trial began. It included reports from several law enforcement investigators, including in the narcotics division, who had been monitoring the motorcycle community to which McGarry belonged and its cocaine sales.
Included is a statement from a witness who overheard Robertson talking about McGarry’s murder and implicating himself, not Hanline. Robertson had been quick to jump on the case after McGarry’s death, telling investigators that he should act as “go between” for the motorcycle community because they didn’t want to talk to the cops. It was later learned that he represented not only McGarry’s family, but the deceased’s estate.
The second report, eight pages long, details the Ventura police’s investigation of a phone call with a confidential informant named “A,” who reportedly ran Paisano Publications at the time. “A” told the Los Angeles Police Department that Bischoff had given him a different version of events than the one she reportedly told the court. His testimony, he said, had been “suppressed due to inconsistencies” that would have weakened the case.
The last person to see McGarry alive (according to Hanline), Koni Burgess, was never interviewed. Burgess said she was at McGarry’s house along with Robertson the night he disappeared. According to Burgess, McGarry himself had dropped her off at a bar that night, telling her that he and Robertson needed to “do some business.”
Without these documents and interviews, there was no way for the defense to prove Hanline’s innocence. Had they been available, he argues, he could have been saved 36 years behind bars. Among the list of things Hanline suffered as a direct result of these omissions: “great mental and physical pain, suffering, anguish, fright, anxiety, shock, humiliation, indignity, embarrassment, and harm to reputation.” The damages in sum, it says, are to be determined at trial.
While there aren’t many public cases of former inmates suing the people who wrongfully imprisoned them, there are many who are wrongfully convicted. It’s impossible to verify exactly how many inmates are serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. Research on the topic has yielded a large variation in numbers, with some suggesting that there are around 10,000 innocent prisoners and others up to 120,000.
One thing that is certain is that there were more exonerations in 2014—125 total—than any year since 1989. If Hanline successfully gets damages from the Ventura County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department, more lawsuits like this one may be just around the corner.