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Cleared After 35 Years in Prison, Man Says

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Exonerated of murder after 35 years in prison, Michael Ray Hanline claims the Ventura County District Attorney and Sheriff's Department suppressed evidence of his innocence and made him "the longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated individual in California's history."

Hanline sued the county, its district attorney and sheriff's offices, lead investigator Martin McCoy and lead prosecutor Louis Samonsky, on Nov. 12 in Federal Court.

Hanline was convicted in 1980 of murdering of magazine writer J.T. McGarry in 1978 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Hanline claims the defendants suppressed "numerous exculpatory documents ... show[ing] that others had taken responsibility for the murder before Mr. Hanline's conviction, that witnesses knew key facts of the crime which were not known to the general public, and that these facts could not have been known by those individuals without their direct involvement in the crime."

Had these documents been produced in discovery, Hanline says, his attorney would have been able to "establish credible evidence" that someone was framing him for the murder.

DNA testing done in 2014 on tape used to bind McGarry's hands and other evidence from the crime scene proved that Hanline was not the killer, according to the complaint.

Hanline claims the defendants conspired with private defense attorney Bruce Robertson to frame him for McGarry's murder, "and conceal the true reason McGarry was killed and the true perpetrators of the crime."

Robertson is not a party to the complaint.

"As a result of these actions ... Mr. Hanline became, through no fault of his own, the longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated individual in California's history," the complaint states.

Hanline says he met McGarry in January 1977 while he was working a booth at a motorcycle-oriented swap meet, which McGarry was covering for Paisano Publications' Easy Rider magazine. Hanline says he, McGarry, and McGarry's bookkeeper Mary Bischoff began traveling together and organizing swap meets.

Bischoff is not a party to the complaint. Both men "became romantically involved" with Bischoff, who was staying with Hanline when McGarry disappeared on the evening of Nov. 10, 1978, according to the lawsuit.

Two days later, police "found McGarry's body with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and head near California Route 33, off of Matilija Canyon and Wheeler Gorge," the complaint states.

Sheriff's investigators found duct tape on McGarry's right wrist, indicating he may have been killed somewhere else. They learned that Bischoff and Hanline had gone to McGarry's house early on the morning of Nov. 12 to retrieve several of Bischoff's personal items, according to the complaint.

Hanline says Bruce Robertson's office became the "base of operations" for the department's investigation. Sheriff's Officer McCoy, the lead investigator, often visited Robertson and showed him copies of investigative material to get his opinion on the case, Hanline says.

"Despite this constant presence at Robertson's office, investigators did not discover - or did not care - that Robertson was dealing drugs out of his office, and using drugs, specifically cocaine, at the time of the investigation," the complaint states.

It continues: "Investigators also did not discover Robertson had a number of false-bottomed Pennzoil cans in his office containing cocaine. The same type of false-bottomed Pennzoil can was discovered at McGarry's house after the murder, further implicating Robertson in the crime."


Hanline says Robertson, who claimed to be McGarry's attorney, called McGarry's home on Nov. 10 and got a dial tone, which led him to conclude McGarry had been murdered, two days before there was proof of a crime.

Nevertheless, Robertson persuaded McCoy and his partner to focus their investigation on Hanline and to keep him updated on their progress even though Robertson "should have been one of their prime suspects," according to the complaint.

A day after McGarry's body was found, the sheriff's department received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming that Mary Bischoff knew what had happened. Robertson persuaded her to fly out to California on a first-class flight, during which she drank several alcoholic beverages, according to the complaint.

After picking Bischoff up at the airport, Hanline claims, Robertson and McCoy drove her to several bars, where she had more drinks, and then took her to the Sheriff's Department for an interview.

"At Robertson's repeated prompting, Bischoff ultimately implicated Hanline in the murder," the complaint states.

Before his arraignment, Hanline says, Robertson threatened Hanline's original trial attorney, Jack Janis, by warning him that the "Hell's Angels 'didn't want no shit' on the murder, and that the Angels wanted Hanline to 'sit in his own mud' for the case." He claims that Janis told Ventura County District Attorney Michael Schwartz about the threat, but Schwartz "did not confront Robertson of follow up in any way."

Shortly before his death, Hanline says, McGarry visited his estranged wife, Gail Stanley, and told her he had to get away from Easy Rider magazine because "its employees were involved in the drug trade and the Mafia."

Though Stanley was a potential witness, the investigators never interviewed her until she was called during the trial to testify, according to the complaint.

Hanline claims McCoy and prosecutor Samonsky told Stanley they were "desperate" to convict Hanline though they knew McGarry had been embezzling from Paisano Publications and was probably killed by someone connected to the company.

Instead, Hanline says, they advanced the theory that he killed McGarry because of the love triangle with Bischoff.

Hanline claims his innocence would have been apparent had the Sheriff's Department not suppressed a 14-page report that contained several documents implicating Robertson in the murder, along with a group of biker cocaine dealers who were his clients.

"Despite Judge Ruffner's order to turn over these statements, they refused," the complaint states.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Ruffner died in 2001.

Nor did the defendants turn over an 8-page report that indicated a man identified only as "Witness A" was likely involved in the crime. "A" told police that he ran Paisano Publications and that Bischoff had called him with information about McGarry's murder, but the report was suppressed due to inconsistencies between "A's" story and Bischoff's testimony, according to the complaint.

Hanline claims Koni Burgess was the last person to see McGarry alive, which was never revealed at trial because Robertson did not direct the investigators to the only witness who knew that. Burgess, who knew Robertson as "Tree" and "Bruce" told investigators working for Hanline in 1986 that she was with McGarry and Robertson at McGarry's house the night he disappeared, according to the complaint. McGarry took her to a bar near his house and left her there "so that he and Robertson could do some business," the complaint states.

Had they interviewed Burgess, Hanline says, prosecutors would have realized their timeline was flawed because Hanline was an hour away from McGarry's house at his time of death. He claims that Burgess also knew that Hanline had been hurt in a motorcycle accident and would not have been able to move McGarry's body from the crime scene.

Though Hanline's first two habeas corpus petitions were denied, Ventura Superior Court Judge Donald D. Coleman reversed his conviction in late 2014 and set the case for retrial. On April 22 this year, the Ventura County District Attorney moved to dismiss all charges against Hanline, according to the complaint.

Hanline claims that suppressing evidence and material facts violated his due process rights and his right to a fair trial.

His 35 years in prison caused him humiliation, harm to his reputation, anxiety and severe mental anguish that will require psychological care to treat. It also deprived him of "familial relationships, including not being able to maintain a healthy and intimate relationship with his wife, and to raise a family," he says.

The Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office declined to comment.

Hanline seeks punitive damages for constitutional violations, conspiracy to violate his civil rights, false evidence and supervisorial liability.

He is represented by Jan Stiglitz, a professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego, where he does work with the California Innocence Project. Stiglitz declined to comment further on the case.

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