While he was a student at Stanford Law School, David Schultz had his professional future mapped out. Once he passed the bar, he would become a public defender and “fight for justice.”
“That’s what innately appealed to me,” says Schultz. “But then I started to realize the reality of a public defender’s existence, which is very difficult emotionally and psychically.”
Instead, Schultz wound up spending 11 years in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, working under former Attorney General Skip Humphrey and his chief deputy at the time, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim. “I loved every minute of it and I always thought I was making a contribution,” recalls Schultz, now a partner at the Minneapolis firm of Maslon.
Schultz decided he wanted to become involved with the Minnesota Innocence Project. About six years ago, Julie Jonas, the I.P.’s legal director, recruited Schultz to represent Terry Lynn Olson.
In 2003, the Wright County Sheriff’s Department reopened its investigation in the death of a 21-year old man, Jeffrey Hammill, whose body had been discovered alongside a rural highway in 1979.
At the time, Hammill’s death was not ruled a homicide. The original lead investigator thought Hammill had probably been struck by a passing vehicle as he walked down a dark stretch of road. But after the case was reopened, investigators leaned on one of Olson’s former co-workers, Dale Todd, who fingered Olson and a third man, Ron Michaels.
The case against Michaels collapsed when, during his trial, Todd dramatically recanted on the stand. Olson wasn’t so fortunate. At Olson’s trial, Todd recanted his recantation, while a parade of jailhouse informants testified that Olson, while behind bars, had confessed to his involvement. In 2007, Olson was convicted of second-degree murder.
After working the case for five years, Schultz had a breakthrough in federal court last July, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau opened the door to an evidentiary hearing on an actual innocence claim.
But Schultz never got to try the case he’d spent years toiling over. After Rau issued his report, Wright County prosecutors offered a deal: Drop the appeal and Olson can walk, with no probation or conditions. In September, after serving 11 years of a presumptive 17-year prison term, Olson was a free man.