A 57-year-old man who had been imprisoned for 11 years for a murder he insists he never committed was released from the Correctional Facility in Faribault on Tuesday after a protracted legal effort by his attorneys and the Minnesota Innocence Project.
Terry Lynn Olson, who faced seven more years in prison, was resentenced to time served by a Wright County judge, under an agreement with the Wright County attorney’s office.
Olson had hoped to have his conviction overturned in the 1979 death of Jeffrey Hammill and said he was saddened that he had not been exonerated. However, he said he decided to accept the deal that freed him so that he could help his ailing mother, who lives in a Twin Cities nursing home.
“I would have preferred to have walked out of prison in a different manner,” he said in a phone interview, minutes after he emerged from prison. “I am happy to be out. I have obligations to my mother that weighed heavily on my decision. She needs her son home.”
Julie Jonas, legal director of the state Innocence Project, said that thousands of hours had been spent to free Olson. “This is the culmination of seven years work,” she said. “It is truly a happy day.”
David Schultz, one of the attorneys who handled Olson’s case on a pro bono basis, said he was happy Olson’s ordeal was over. “The alleged homicide was probably not even a homicide,” he said.
Hammill was discovered dead of a head injury on the side of rural Wright County Road 12 at 4 a.m. on August 11, 1979.
According to investigators, Hammill had met Olson and Dale Todd at a bar in Rockford, Minn., the night before. Although they weren’t well-acquainted, the pair agreed to give Hammill a ride home.
But Todd got a flat tire. He and Olson stole a tire from a nearby service station to replace it and then the trio went to a party at the home of Olson’s sister. Lacking a ride home to Buffalo, Hammill started walking north on the county road at 2:30 a.m.
James Powers, chief Wright County deputy, found Hammill lying on the side of the road around 4 a.m., dead of an apparent head injury. After an autopsy, the manner of death was ruled “undetermined.”
In 2003, however, the case was reopened after Hammill’s daughter came to the sheriff’s office to learn more about the death.
According to documents filed by Schultz, two agents from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension interviewed Todd, lying about an eyewitness on the county road and “telling him that blood and hair had been found on the baseball bat taken from his car.”
Todd, who was mentally ill, according to Olson’s attorneys, confessed to the killing. Hammill’s death was reclassified as murder by the then-county medical examiner, Dr. Janis Amatuzio. Todd accepted a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Olson and another man, Ron Michaels, who was also at the party.
At Michaels’ trial, Todd implicated Michaels on the witness stand, but then recanted, claiming he lied, saying police “kept hounding me and hounding me what they wanted to say,” and said there was no murder.
A jury found Michaels innocent. The plea deal was withdrawn, and Todd went to prison. Todd then testified at Olson’s trial where he implicated Olson in the murder, according to Schultz.
Olson was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Within days of Olson’s conviction, Todd wrote a letter to the court judge saying he had lied. He said none of the men was involved in Hammill’s death.
However, the state court of appeals reaffirmed the conviction. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case. Additional appeals also failed.
The defense lawyers pressed on. The Innocence Project got involved, Jonas said, when Powers, the chief deputy who found Hammill’s body, stated that he did not believe Olson was guilty.
“It was his belief,” said Jonas, “as was ours, that Hammill’s death resulted from being hit by a piece of farm equipment that was being moved in the middle of the night and the farmer probably didn’t even know he hit him, that Hammill was accidentally killed by an agricultural vehicle.”
The defense team brought in more attorneys from the Maslon law firm.
Schultz said there was “no physical evidence, no DNA evidence, nothing linking Terry Olson or the other two people accused of the crime, to the crime.”
The defense team filed a motion in U.S. District Court in December, seeking Olson’s release and an evidentiary hearing. “This is a case of actual innocence,” their 51-page memorandum began.
While that was pending, the prosecutor offered to let Olson out if he dropped his habeas petition, Schultz said.
“That was an agonizing decision for Terry because he was going to give up the right to get a judicial declaration of innocence in return for getting out of prison immediately,” Schultz said.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank issued an order Thursday, remanding the case to Wright County and “concluding that the interests of fairness, justice and equity will be served” by resentencing Olson and immediately releasing him from custody.
Judge Geoffrey W. Tenney of Wright County resentenced Olson on Tuesday to time already served. Assistant Wright County Attorney Greg Kryzer, who handled the case, did not return phone calls for comment Tuesday.
After Olson’s release in Faribault on Tuesday, Schultz said he invited Olson to lunch and asked what he wanted to eat. Olson suggested pizza. Schultz took out his cell phone and asked Siri to find the nearest pizza restaurant.
“Is that all you’ve got to do?” Olson asked Schultz.
Schultz said he responded, “Terry, you’ve got to get out more.”
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224