A man who spent 10 years in prison for robbery and burglary has been released after the Innocence Project Northwest persuaded King County prosecutors to re-examine the man’s conviction, which was based solely on eyewitness testimony.
The case of Brandon Olebar came to the attention of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), based out of the clinical law program at the University of Washington Law School, in 2011. The project said two students “developed a body of evidence” that showed Olebar was not among the assailants who in February 2003 broke into the home of Olebar’s sister’s boyfriend, pistol-whipped and beat him unconscious and then stuffed him in a closet. The victim said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes, during which time he recognized Olebar’s sister as one of them. He told police the attackers had “feather” facial tattoos.
Two days after the beating, the victim identified Brandon Olebar from a photograph montage. Despite the fact that he does not have a facial tattoo and that he had an alibi, Olebar was charged with burglary and robbery, convicted by a King County jury solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, and sentenced to 16 1/2 years in prison.
IPNW Director Jacqueline McMurtrie said 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 Brandon Olebar was present. Working with IPN attorney Fernanda Torres, they presented the new evidence to Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
McMurtrie said that, over the next several months, Torres and Larson reviewed the case in light of the new the evidence developed by IPNW and conducted independent interviews of new witnesses. Last Friday, Satterberg’s office moved to vacate the conviction and dismissed the charges, and Olebar, 30, was released into the arms of his wife, Mely, and Torres.
“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 partnering 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 on-going 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 offices’ “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.”
Olebar spent years protesting his conviction and said he was “ecstatic to finally be heard” when the IPNW took his case.
“My wife, the students and my lawyer fought for me and it means so much that they did that for me,” Olebar said in a statement. “It’s unreal. “The people that believed in me when I was in prison kept me going.”
IPNW is part of a national network of projects who work to free the wrongly convicted. It was among 29 cases in the U.S. documented by the Innocence Network in 2013, according to a report released today.