Wrongly convicted Seattle man released after 10 years

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In 2010, the Innocence Project Northwest was instrumental in overturning the felony rape convictions of two men in a Clark County case.

Alan Northrop and Larry Davis were convicted of tying up, blindfolding and sexually assaulting a La Center housekeeper and were sentenced to long prison terms. Questions about the quality of the police investigation were raised, and under the arguments raised by the Innocence Project, a judge ordered DNA tests, the results of which excluded both men as the victim’s assailants.

Northrop was freed after 17 years; Davis had already completed his sentence.

The case continues to reverberate. Clark County agreed this year to pay the men $10.5 million for wrongful imprisonment. And the Legislature passed a bill allowing people wrongfully convicted of crimes to file for damages against the state. Northrop testified for the bill, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses. Among possible settlements available to claimants are $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, plus $50,000 for each year on death row.

SEATTLE — A wrongly convicted Seattle man who spent 10 years in prison after being convicted of robbery and burglary has been released.

Brandon Olebar was released from prison after the Innocence Project Northwest persuaded King County prosecutors to re-examine his conviction, which was based solely on eyewitness testimony, The Seattle Times reported in Tuesday's newspaper.

Two students from the Innocence Project Northwest, which is based at the University of Washington Law School, pulled together evidence that Olebar was not among the people who in February 2003 broke into the home of his sister's boyfriend and pistol-whipped and beat the man unconscious.

The victim said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes and he recognized Olebar's sister as one of them. He told police the attackers had "feather" facial tattoos.

The victim later identified Olebar from a photo montage. Despite the fact that he did not have a facial tattoo and had an alibi, Olebar was charged with burglary and robbery.

A King County jury convicted him solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony and sentenced him to 16 and a-half years in prison, according to an Innocence Project statement.

Project Director Jacqueline McMurtrie said the two law students, Nikki Carsley and Kathleen Klineall, tracked down and interviewed three of the assailants, who signed sworn statements admitting their involvement and denying that Olebar was present during the attack.

Working with attorney Fernanda Torres, they presented the new evidence to Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

Last week after interviewing the same people, Satterberg's office moved to vacate the conviction and dismissed the charges. Olebar, 30, was released into the arms of his wife, Mely.

"Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions," said IPNW Policy Director Lara Zarowsky. "It played a role in nearly 75 percent of the convictions overturned through DNA testing."

Zarowsky said the project is working with Washington state law enforcement, social scientists and prosecutors to develop best practices for police officers implementing eyewitness-identification procedures.

Satterberg, in a written statement, said prosecutors have "an ongoing duty to receive and consider new evidence in a case, even after a jury's verdict."

"In this matter, the new statements from the participants in the robbery cast enough doubts about Mr. Olebar's involvement in the crime that we decided the case should be dismissed in the interests of justice," Satterberg said.

Torres, Olebar's attorney, praised Satterberg and said his office's "willingness to correct an injustice in light of new evidence shows true devotion to justice, even long after a case has been put to rest."

Torres said that one of the men tracked down by the students has since been arrested, charged and convicted of the crime.

Olebar thanked the Innocence Project for working on his behalf.

"The people that believed in me when I was in prison kept me going," he said.

The Olebar case was among 29 cases in the U.S. in which wrongly convicted people were exonerated in 2013 through the work of the Innocence Network, according to a report released Monday.