In 2012, the Innocence Project of Minnesota contacted Maslon attorney David Schultz to provide pro bono representation to a man serving 17 years in prison for murder—a crime he maintained he did not commit. David, and a Maslon team including attorney Erica Holzer as well as paralegals Maureen Engelstad and Diane Skrivseth, immediately went to work on the matter, the details of which follow:
In 1979, Jeff Hammill was found dead on the side of the road just outside of Buffalo, Minnesota. Investigators interviewed over 70 people; there was no physical or forensic evidence linking anyone to the scene where the body was found. After a period of investigation into whether the case was an accident or homicide, the case was initially closed with no charges filed. However, in 2003 the case was reopened when police coerced a confession from a mentally ill and vulnerable man named Dale Todd. Mr. Todd implicated himself and two other men, Terry Olson and Ron Michaels, in the murder of Mr. Hammill. Much of his coerced statement to police conflicted with known physical evidence. Although he recanted the confession at Mr. Michaels' trial, Mr. Todd was coerced into reverting to the story he had told to police at Mr. Olson's 2007 trial. Mr. Michaels was acquitted, but Mr. Olson was sent to prison for 17 years. Days after Mr. Olson's trial, Mr. Todd wrote a letter to the trial judge confessing he had lied at Mr. Olson's trial, but no hearing was held.
In 2012, Mr. Todd contacted the Innocence Project to share his story and tell the truth that neither he nor Mr. Michaels or Mr. Olson had been involved in Mr. Hammill's death. Mr. Todd provided a detailed affidavit explaining the circumstances of his false coerced confession. Additionally, former Chief Deputy Sheriff Jim Powers, one of the lead investigators on the case in 1979, contacted the Innocence Project shortly thereafter and shared that he believed the incident was a roadside accident and no crime was committed.
Maslon and the Innocence Project filed for post-conviction relief in Wright County District Court. At the hearing on his post-conviction condition, Mr. Olson's attorneys admitted they had failed in their constitutional duties to provide Mr. Olson adequate legal representation. Also at the hearing, Dr. Janis Amatuzio, the medical examiner who changed Mr. Hammill's death certificate from undetermined to homicide, admitted that she had done so only because police told her they had an eye witness to the murder—the not credible Mr. Dale Todd. Dr. Amatuzio was never told that Mr. Todd suffered any mental illness or that he had recanted his coerced confession. There was no forensic evidence that led to Dr. Amatuzio's change to the death certificate.
Despite this and other evidence, Mr. Olson's request for post-conviction relief was denied by the trial court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals who, although observing that the case was a compelling one, found no legal error. Mr. Olson then filed for habeas corpus in federal court. When the Federal District Court refused to dismiss Mr. Olson's petition, the Wright County prosecutor agreed that if Mr. Olson would drop his habeas case, they would agree to his immediate release from prison. After Federal District Court Judge Donovan Frank issued a written order for amendments of Mr. Olson's sentence, the Wright County District Court ordered Olson's immediate release. Maslon attorneys, in conjunction with the Innocence Project, spent thousands of hours securing Mr. Olson's release from prison.
After being incarcerated for more than 10 years, all the while maintaining his innocence, Mr. Olson was released on Tuesday, September 13. He is excited to return to freedom and to spend time with his family.
View the Innocence Project of Minnesota Announcement
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