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September 26, 2014 at 10:12 AM

Wrongfully convicted Seattle man awarded nearly $500,000

Brandon Olebar, center, is the first Innocence Project Northwest exoneree awarded from a wrongful conviction compensation under a law championed by Representative Tina Orwall, right (black jacket), and the Innocence Project Northwest Legislative Advocacy Clinic. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Brandon Olebar, center, is the first Innocence Project Northwest exoneree awarded from a wrongful conviction compensation under a law championed by Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines), right (black jacket), and the Innocence Project Northwest Legislative Advocacy Clinic. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

A Seattle man who spent 10 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and burglary was awarded $496,712 during a hearing Friday morning in King County Superior Court.

“My plan is to just take it one step at a time,” said Brandon Olebar, the first person freed through the work of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) to be awarded wrongful conviction compensation under a law passed last year.

Olebar, who appeared in court with his wife, Melissa, and their newborn daughter, Creation Redmoonhawk Olebar, said he wanted to concentrate on being a “family man.”

Olebar, 31, said he will use the money to get an apartment, buy his first car, pay bills and  go back to school.

“I’m excited,” he said after the court hearing as he and his supporters basked in the special moment.

A total of $546,690 was awarded in Olebar’s case, with $49,671 going to attorney fees. Olebar’s share is tax free.

After approving the award, Superior Court Judge Laura Middaugh told Olebar to “just have a good life.”

After Olebar’s case came to the attention of the IPNW, based out of the clinical-law program at the University of Washington Law School, two students “developed a body of evidence” that showed 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, 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 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 he was sentenced to 16½ years in prison, according to the IPNW.

IPNW Director Jacqueline McMurtrie said two law students, Nikki Carsley and Kathleen Kline, 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 IPNW attorney Fernanda Torres, they presented the new evidence to Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

McMurtrie said that over the next several months, Torres and Larson reviewed the case in light of the new evidence developed by IPNW and conducted independent interviews of new witnesses.

In December, Satterberg’s office moved to vacate the conviction and dismissed the charges.

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

The law passed in 2013 allows people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state. Under the law, a wrongly convicted person could receive $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial.

Olebar spent 3,626 days in prison.

Before the law’s passage, the only option for the wrongly convicted was to sue, but the individual had to sue on some basis other than the fact of being wrongfully convicted, such as police or prosecutorial misconduct.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: Innocence Project Northwest, King County Superior Court, wrongful conviction

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