When Terry Lynn Olson stepped in front of the microphones and cameras on the afternoon of Sept. 16, he was, understandably, at a loss for words.
After spending 11 years behind bars, Olson, 57, had been released from prison just three days earlier and was still adjusting to life on the outside.
How does it feel?
“Miraculous,” Olson answered.
For the first time since his conviction for second-degree murder, Olson elaborated, he had a chance to do something he dreamed of while in prison. He shucked off his shoes, so he could walk barefoot in the grass.
He also squeezed in a visit to his wheelchair-bound mother, whom he had seen just once since his incarceration. That experience, he said, “was one of the most joyous events of my life.”
When Olson was asked about the particulars of his case, the sentiments flowed more easily.
“It’s borderline tragic,” said Olson, who was flanked by the two lawyers who secured his release, David Schultz, a commercial litigator and partner at the Minneapolis firm of Maslon LLP, and Julie Jonas, the legal director at the Minnesota Innocence Project.
“I realize that there are mistakes made in judicial system,” he added. “But it’s disappointing that it’s so excruciatingly hard to correct those mistakes.”
After years of frustrating setbacks, procedural hurdles and adverse rulings, Olson was set free 11 years into an anticipated 17-year sentence in a stipulated agreement with the Wright County attorney’s office.
Under the deal, Olson is “off paper” — meaning he’s not on probation or parole — but he also agreed not to sue Wright County or its employees over his prosecution.
That unusual resolution was fitting, given the unusual nature of the case.
Olson’s ordeal began in 2003 after the Wright County Sheriff’s Department reopened an investigation into the death of Jeffrey Hammill, a 21-year-old Montrose man whose bloodied body was discovered alongside a county road in 1979.
At the time, Hammill’s death was not ruled a homicide. One of the original investigators, retired Wright County Sheriff’s Deputy James Powers, concluded that Hammill’s death was likely accidental, probably the result of being struck by a vehicle hauling farm equipment.
That changed when investigators secured a confession from a former friend of Olson’s, Dale Todd — one of more than 60-odd people who were interviewed in the immediate aftermath of Hammill’s death.
After being told, falsely, that Hammill’s DNA had been found on a baseball bat seized from the trunk of Todd’s car, Todd fingered Olson and a third man, Ron Michaels.
The case against Michaels collapsed spectacularly at trial when Todd recanted on the witness stand, saying he had been pressured into falsely implicating his co-defendants.
Undeterred, Wright County prosecutors forged ahead with the case against Olson.
After persuading Todd to recant his recantation and producing several jailhouse informants who testified that Olson confessed to his involvement in Hammill’s death, a conviction was secured at trial in 2007.
At the time, Jonas, the Minnesota Innocence Project legal director, said she read press accounts about a cold case out of Wright County and, at first, wrongly assumed there must have been compelling DNA evidence.
Jonas said her skepticism was further piqued when Powers, the retired Wright County investigator, contacted the Innocence Project to express his doubts.
With Olson’s release, the Minnesota Innocence Project has now freed five clients. Unlike all but one of those other cases, Olson’s conviction was not reversed and, in the eyes of the law, he remains a murderer.
According to Schultz, Wright County prosecutors made their offer following a 58-page report and recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau in July.
Although Rau had recommended the dismissal of Olson’s federal habeas petition, Schultz was heartened by the magistrate’s report because it left the door open for Olson to pursue an actual innocence claim and invited him to brief the case for an evidentiary hearing.
After working the case for five years, Schultz said that prospect was tantalizing. It also stood in marked contrast from Olson’s arduous journey through the state courts, where Olson’s petitions and appeals were turned back time and again on procedural grounds.
“I was shocked we didn’t win in the Court of Appeals, to be honest. But I felt very good about going forward in federal court,” said Schultz.
In part, Schultz said that’s because it would give Olson a chance to present “uniquely exculpatory evidence” for the first time.
Among the most compelling: a newly uncovered statement made by the state’s chief witness, Dale Todd, to a jailhouse nurse in which Todd described his reasons for recantation at the Ron Michaels’ trial—because he had made his statements under pressure–and also said he was hearing voices and feeling paranoid – key disclosures that were never made to Olson’s defense.
Schultz also said he thought he would be able to pick apart another key part of the state’s case – the determination that Hammill was, in fact, the victim of a homicide.
In a deposition, according to Schultz, medical examiner Janis Amatuzi said she changed her opinion on the manner of death only because the police told her they had an eyewitness to Hammill’s purported murder.
At trial, Olson’s lawyer didn’t probe that issue — a strong hook, in Schultz’s view, for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
Although Schultz thinks he could have prevailed with actual innocence claim, he acknowledged that there are no guarantees. Another major consideration in Olson’s decision to take the deal: it could have taken years to fully litigate the arguments.
“As a lawyer, you always want to get a ruling on the merits,” Schultz added. “But you have to recognize that it’s not about what the lawyer wants because it’s not your case, it’s the client’s case. And that lesson was driven home here.”
Despite the mixed outcome, Schultz said working on the case was “uniquely rewarding.’”
“It’s why every lawyer goes to law school — to make a difference in a person’s life,” he added.
Schultz, who has worked on two other Innocence Project cases previously, said he would be honored to work another.
For his part, Terry Olson said he’s now enrolled in a correspondence class in hopes of becoming a legal assistant.
Whether those plans come to fruition is anyone’s guess but, according to Schultz, Olson displays an unusual knack for law.
“He has an amazing knowledge about every single detail of his case, and he was able to shoot holes in arguments as well as any lawyer I’ve ever seen,” Schultz said. “Obviously, he’s highly motivated because it’s his case. But we’ve all had highly motivated clients and they don’t necessarily remember every detail.”