Thirty-eight years ago, before he went to jail for a murder he did not commit, Mike Hanline would ride his motorcycle on California freeways that were smooth as glass.
“The showcase for the country,” he calls them. Now, it’s like “riding on a washboard.”
The strangest thing, he says, is the speed at which everything now moves. “The traffic moves so fast,” says Hanline. “I feel like I am on the front of a missile going through space.”
Moving too fast on a bumpy road is an apt way to describe Hanline’s experience with the California’s justice system, too. In 1978, Hanline was arrested for the murder of Ventura resident JT McGarry, a fellow biker Hanline knew from the local motorcycle swap meet scene. Two years later, Hanline was convicted based chiefly off the testimony of an ex-girlfriend and sentenced to life without parol.
On Wednesday, Hanline’s conviction was officially dismissed by a Ventura County superior judge.
At two days short of 38 years, Hanline, now 69, has become the longest-serving wrongfully convicted man in California history. He has now become either an unwilling symbol of a criminal justice system gone off the rails—or if you are feeling more charitable, one willing to correct errors of its past even if it takes a couple of generations to do so.
“When I first got arrested, I figured it might take a year or two to get it all straightened out—not 36,” said Hanline, out in front of the sprawling Ventura County courthouse. It had been a “teeny” thing when he was first convicted.
“I still wonder it every day. Why? I don’t know. I guess I was supposed to learn something or teach something to somebody, or something. Maybe I was just supposed to bring attention to the Innocence Project.”
Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project is a clinical and educational program at California Western School of Law designed to free innocent people from California’s overpopulated prison system and help change the flawed system that put them there in the first place. Hanline first contacted the group within weeks of them setting it up.
Hanline is the 15th client the Innocence Project has helped to free. It is currently trying to overturn 18 convictions that it believes are unjustified. While the group receives on average a couple of thousand innocence claims yearly, “Mike’s case was one jumped out at us almost immediately as one that just didn't make sense,” his lawyer and CIP associate director Alex Simpson told The Daily Beast.
Within a couple of years of CIP’s investigation into Hanline’s conviction, they began to find problems in his case. There found sealed police reports that implicated others in the crime and evidence that prosecution's star witness, Mary Bischoff, had changed her story.
It was compelling enough that in 2010, after a nearly year-long procure, a federal magistrate released a 50-page ruling that Hanline should be released from prison and given a new trial, but a district judge ruled against implementing the report. It wasn't until some four years later—15 years after California Innocence Project first started working on the case—when the DA discovered as yet unspecified DNA evidence that showed another unidentified man was at the murder scene and there was no evidence that Hanline was, too—that they decided to set aside the conviction.
The move, unprecedented in the Ventura County’s District Attorney’s history, sent Hanline home in October of 2014, albeit with an electronic ankle bracelet. While Hanline was freed of electronic monitoring with this week’s ruling, the procedure Wednesday stopped short of declaring his factual innocence.
“This is a legal procedure where the District Attorney has to make a decision whether or not to re-prosecute, which is a separate question of whether or not he is innocent,” says the California Innocence Project director Justin Brooks. “I have a different take on that: he is 100% innocent. When you examine this case closely, you see that what he was convicted on was paper-thin evidence. There were all kinds of problems with this case when it was tried, and everywhere we looked at it and everywhere we investigated we found more and more problems. Testimony fell apart, witnesses fell apart, evidence fell apart.”
While the district attorney’s office agreed that the evidence against Hanline was problematic, they wouldn't say that the man they were freeing was completely innocent.
“This isn't a case where someone was walking down the street and was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” special assistant district attorney for Ventura county Michael Schwartz said Wednesday. “There was evidence of his guilt, but I think the facts that we have learned since then have cast doubt on it to the point that I felt that if we had to retry the case today we couldn't prove it.”
For now, Hanline, who kept his ’70s biker beard long enough that it’s now back in style, is free of the courts and a prison system that has claimed more than half of his life. He’s begun the bizarre process of acclimating to a world where everyone walks around with little TV sets in their jeans. “It’s Buck Rodgers,” he says.
In the six months since his release, he’s been fixing up the house, riding his bike, and doing a lot of fishing. He has had to get used to sharing a bed again with Sandee, the wife who married him prior to his conviction and has stuck by him ever since.
“He’s worth waiting for,” she said outside the courthouse clutching Hanline with one arm and a padded envelope with “Important Court Documents” written in Sharpie in the other. “I missed him.”
Indeed, considering that this was an event for which the Hanlines had waited nearly four decades to see, the mood Wednesday was low-key. Michael Hanline went so far as to call it “anti-climactic.”
“If he didn't do it and he spent  years of his life in prison, then [this] is a sad day for him and a failure of our justice system,” says Schwartz. “If he did do it and he is being released and he is not on parole, that is not an ideal outcome either. [But] this is the right outcome based on the state of the evidence.”
For the lawyers who helped free him, Hanline’s exoneration was more than just a standalone failure but an example of a justice system in desperate need of an overhaul.
“When there is a plane crash, we take a look at what happened, we get the black box and try to figure out if it was a mechanical failure or something else,” says the California Innocence Project’s Simpson. “If we find out that there was a mechanical failure, we fix it for every plane. But we don’t do that for the criminal justice system. Wrongful conviction is always seen as an isolated incident. In fact, we see many of the same issues present in many other cases.”
“This is a tremendous day for Mike,” Simpson added, “but what has happened to him is not unique.”