Terry Olson, who spent 11 years in Stillwater prison for a crime he says he did not commit, said Friday that his incarceration "was a nightmare."
Olson, now 57, was convicted in 2007 in Wright County District Court of killing Jeff Hammill, whose body was found on a county road just outside Buffalo on Aug. 11, 1979.
He was released from Faribault Correctional Facility on Tuesday with credit for time served, but without a legal declaration that he did not commit murder.
Prison "was lonely," he said during an interview at his lawyer's Minneapolis office. "I'm innocent of a crime that in all likelihood never occurred. You feel like you're standing on top of Mount Everest screaming for help, and nobody's listening."
Julie Jonas, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, estimated that about 3,000 hours of legal time were spent on the case, including work by lawyer David Schultz and others at the Maslon law firm in Minneapolis, staff attorneys at her office and law students at Hamline University in St. Paul (before it merged with William Mitchell College of Law).
"I'm ecstatic for Terry and his family," she said. "It's been one of the best weeks in my life."
Olson said it is "wonderful" to be free. "You never know what freedom is until it's taken from you and now that I've gotten it back, I have huge appreciation for even the tiniest of things," he said.
He said he is deeply thankful to the legal team that worked to free him, nodding to Jonas and Schultz, who sat beside him during the interview. Then he stared wide-eyed when Schultz took him to a room filled with 20 boxes of legal files on his case.
"I've been blessed like no man on Earth," Olson said. "I told David, 'You're my friend. You're stuck with me for life.' "
Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly said Friday that his office agreed to Olson's release because he had already served more time than he would have had he been sentenced under 1980 sentencing guidelines. He said Hammill's mother agreed to Olson's release.
Kelly said he continues to believe Olson was guilty of killing Hammill. "I don't have a hard time sleeping at night," he said, confident they charged the right three people in the case, including Olson. "It is not like we threw three darts against the wall and randomly charged three individuals."
Accident or murder?
In Friday's interview, Olson recounted the night in 1979 that led to his arrest.
"I was at a bar with a friend [Dale Todd]," he said. "We left the bar" to go to Olson's sister's house for a party, "and on the way there, we picked up Jeffrey Hammill, who was hitchhiking."
He had met Hammill three weeks earlier at a fabricating plant where they both worked, he said. Hammill wanted a ride home, but Todd and Olson said they could only take him as far as Olson's sister's house.
"We got to the party," said Olson. "Hammill left after about two minutes. He went walking down the road. That was the last we saw of him."
Hammill's body was found on the side of a road at 4 a.m. the next morning with a fatal head wound.
Investigators interviewed people from the party. Olson took two lie detector tests and passed them both, he said. The test results later disappeared. No one was charged, and the medical examiner listed the cause of death as undetermined.
But in 2003, the case was reopened after an inquiry by Hammill's daughter. The medical examiner changed the cause of death to homicide based on a statement by Dale Todd, who implicated Ron Michaels, another man who was at the 1979 party, and Olson. All three were charged in connection with Hammill's death.
In a later affidavit, Todd said he made false statements because he "felt pressured and because I was scared" and was addicted to painkillers at the time.
At Michaels' trial, Todd testified against Michaels, but the next day recanted on the witness stand. Michaels was found not guilty. Todd's plea agreement was withdrawn and he was sent to prison for 37 months.
Todd was then called to testify in Olson's trial and implicated him in Hammill's death. He later said that he feared he'd be sentenced to 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit unless he testified against Olson.
Olson was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Todd, who was mentally ill, later wrote that he suffered considerable remorse over what he had done. In 2012, when out of prison, he contacted the Innocence Project, which asked Schultz to take the case. Jim Powers, former chief deputy for the Wright County sheriff's office, also called the Innocence Project, convinced that Olson was not guilty.
Schultz said he and Powers believe Hammill was accidentally struck and killed by farm equipment as he walked along the road.
When Schultz met Olson at Stillwater prison for the first time, he was impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of the case. "I remember him saying, over and over, 'I didn't do this. I'm innocent,' " Schultz said.
Kelly, the Wright County attorney, insists the original jury got it right in convicting Olson. He said that several inmates at Sherburne County jail testified at Olson's trial that he told them he had murdered Hammill.
However, Olson and Schultz said Friday that there were also fellow inmates who testified that Olson maintained his innocence, as well as one inmate who testified that he was assaulted when he refused to go along with two others in implicating Olson.
'I have a lot to offer'
Olson said Friday that he was reluctant to accept release without exoneration, but felt a responsibility to his mother, Gladys, who is in a Twin Cities nursing home.
"I could not bear the fact of having my mother passing away while I was still in prison," he said.
Hours after he left prison Tuesday, he went to visit her. "To see the look on her face and see her step out of her wheelchair, you can't imagine," Olson said.
For the time being, he is staying with his sister. His next goals are to get a driver's license and a job. He's been taking a correspondence course to become a legal assistant.
"I feel I have a lot to offer in helping others that are in the same situation that I was in," he said.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224