Freed prisoner ready to begin new life

Innocence Project helps free man after 11 years

MINNEAPOLIS -- Terry Olson is starting his life over at age 57, after being locked away for 11 years for a crime he knows he didn't commit.

"Any amount of time being locked up for a crime you didn’t commit is excruciatingly painful and lonely," Olson told reporters Friday at press conference in Minneapolis.

"I’ve been given a new lease on life by these people and the people who’ve supported me through the years."

This week Olson became the fifth Minnesotan freed from prison through the efforts of the Innocence Project of Minnesota. He was reunited with his 77-year-old mother who sprung up from her wheelchair and hugged him.

"Don't you ever go away again!" she exclaimed through her tears, in a scene captured on video by the Innocence Project.

"It’s probably the most joyous event in my life," Olson remarked.

His mother's health was one of the reasons he was willing to settle with Wright County, and be released immediately rather than push for full legal exoneration. That may have taken years to wind it's way through the federal court system.

The Innocence Project had championed Olson's cause since 2007, after he was convicted in Wright County in the cold case death of Jeffrey Hammill.

"I read an article about the trial at the time, and it stuck with me because it talked about a cold case, so I thought it would be a DNA cold case," Julie Jonas, the legal director of Innocence Project in Minnesota, explained.

"There was no DNA in the article, and I thought how did they convict this guy?"

Hammill was found dead from a single blow to the head along a Wright County Highway in 1979. He was last seen with Terry Olson, Ron Michaels and Dale Todd at a party, but left on foot alone.

All three men were interviewed at the time, and all denied any involvement in Hammill's death. All three passed lie detector tests at the time. There was no physical evidence linking any of them to Hammill or the crime scene.

Cold Case

Fast forward 24 years to 2003. By then a young woman named Amanda Theise had learned that the victim Jeffrey Hammill was her biological dad. She pressed the Wright County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to reopen the investigation.

Dale Todd, under pressure from investigators, accused Terry Olson and Ron Michaels. Two BCA agents told Todd a baseball bat had been found in his car with Hammill's blood and hair, and that an eye witness could place him on the highway where Hammill died.

Both stories were false, but it helped convince Todd to make a deal.

All three men -- Olson, Michaels and Todd -- were indicted in 2005 by a Wright County Grand Jury.Michaels and Olson were charge with murder, while Todd was given a lesser charge of aiding and abetting.

The BCA announced the cold case murder of Jeffrey Hammill had been solved. At the time Lt. Joe Haggerty, who is now the Wright County Sheriff, told reporters there had been an altercation at the party and the three suspects concocted a cover story and agreed to stick with it.

During Ron Michaels's trial in 2006, Todd recanted his accusation while on the witness stand. He told jurors he'd been coerced by the BCA agents into implicating Michaels.The jury needed only 20 minutes to decide Michaels should go free.

But Terry Olson wasn't so fortunate. He was convicted in 2007 of killing Hammill, based on Dale Todd's word. Shortly after Olson went to prison Todd sent a letter to the trial judge recanting his story, attempting to clear Olson.

In 2013 Todd gave the Innocence Project an affidavit, again asserting he lied about Olson's involvement.

'The reality is that over 24 years Dale Todd consistently said 'We weren’t there. We didn’t do it. We have no idea what happened',” said David Schultz, a partner at Maslon Law who assisted on the case.

"And the only times he said otherwise was when he was pressured by law enforcement."

Murder or Accident?

Shortly after Olson was convicted the Innocence Project received a call from former Wright County Chief Deputy James Powers, one of the original investigators from 1979. He said he was never convinced Hammill's death was a murder, so he was surprised someone was sent to prison for it.

"Deputy Powers said he believed no crime had actually occurred, that it was likely because a farmer was moving some sort of farm implement at night, and accidentally hit Hammill and never knew he hit him."

Until Olson's attorney's talk to Powers they didn't know he had taken statements from the three suspects in 1979, and that he had administered the polygraph tests to them. 

"I took two of those tests and passed them both," Olson recalled on Friday. "But those interviews and polygraphs were missing when I went on trial. Out of 70 statements taken in 1979, the only ones missing were the ones that belonged to me and my two codefendants."

Federal pressure

Olson's lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus in the federal court, seeking his release based on a variety of claims, including inadequate counsel at trial, evidence withheld by prosecutors and efforts to sponsor false testimony.

They were encouraged by the initial ruling in the case by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau, who asked the attorneys to file another brief.

"While we were preparing to file a brief in response to Judge Rau’s order, I got the settlement proposal from Wright County," Schultz explained. "They said if you agree to dismiss the habeas case, we’ll agree to a release Terry, no more time, no probation or parole, just time already served."

It was still an agonizing decision for Terry Olson. He'll still have a prison record in background checks. And, according to Schultz, he probably won't qualify for financial compensation from Minnesota's Wrongful Imprisonment Fund.

Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly insisted Friday the prosecution of Olson was done properly, and noted that the conviction was upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

David Schultz said people shouldn't read too much into the state Court of Appeals ruling because the judges ruled on a procedural issue, not the merits of the case.

Terry Olson said he didn't expect an apology from the prosecutors and officers who put him in prison.

"I don’t need an apology from anyone to know what I know. I was charged with a crime that I didn’t commit. I was convicted of a crime I didn’t commit."

He said he's thinking about pursuing a career as a legal assistant.

"One thing I waited for 11 years that I already did was to walk barefoot in the grass."

(© 2016 KARE)


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