A Seattle man who spent 10 years in prison after he was convicted of robbery and burglary has been released after the Innocence Project Northwest
persuaded King County prosecutors to re-examine the conviction, which was based solely on eyewitness testimony.
Brandon Olebar’s case came to the attention of the IPNW, based out of the clinical-law program at the University of Washington Law School, and 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, according to a statement.
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.
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A King County jury convicted him solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony and sentenced him to 16½ years in prison, according to the IPNW statement.
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.
Last Friday, Satterberg’s office moved to vacate the conviction and dismissed the charges. Olebar, 30, was released into the arms of his wife, Mely.
“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 ongoing 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 office’s “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.”
Torres said that one of the men tracked down by the students has since been arrested, charged and convicted of a crime.
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,” he said.
IPNW is part of a national network of projects that work to free the wrongly convicted.
The Olebar case was among 29 cases in the U.S. in which wrongly convicted people were exonerated in 2013 through the work of the Innocence Network, according to a report released Monday.
A new state law 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.
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.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter, @stimesmcarter.
Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.