During his 3,626 days behind bars, Brandon Redtailhawk Olebar said he imagined a day like the one that unfolded Friday because he knew he was innocent. But it wasn’t until the Innocence Project Northwest took up his case that he began to really visualize it.
Last year he was released from prison, and on Friday, as compensation for spending 10 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and burglary, Olebar was awarded $496,712 during a hearing in King County Superior Court that concluded with applause.
“My plan is to just take it one step at a time,” said Olebar, the first person freed through the work of the Innocence Project to be awarded wrongful-conviction compensation under a state law passed last year.
Olebar, whose wife, Melissa, appeared in the courtroom with their newborn daughter, Creation Redmoonhawk Olebar, said he wanted to concentrate on being a family man.
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Olebar, 31, lives in Seattle and has been working part-time jobs, including as a vendor at Seattle Mariners games. He 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 hearing as he and his supporters basked in the special moment.
A total of $546,690 was awarded in Olebar’s case, including $49,671 for attorney fees. Olebar’s share is tax-free under the law.
Olebar, described during the hearing as harboring no bitterness, told the court he was “totally grateful” to be a part of history.
Superior Court Judge Laura Middaugh, who presided over the hearing, said she believes the U.S. legal system to be the best but not perfect. Compensation, she said, was one way to acknowledge mistakes and bring about justice.
After approving the award, Middaugh told Olebar to “just have a good life.”
The Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), based out of the clinical-law program at the University of Washington Law School, began reviewing Olebar’s case in 2011.
Two UW law students, Nikki Carsley and Kathleen Kline, who graduated last year, 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 King County Sheriff’s Office investigated the Auburn-area incident, in which the victim said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes.
During that time, the victim said, 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. His sister pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to a prison term.
Carsley and Kline tracked down and interviewed three of the assailants, who signed sworn statements admitting their involvement and denying Brandon Olebar was present during the attack, the IPNW said.
Working with IPNW attorney Fernanda Torres, the students presented the new evidence to Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.
Over the next several months, according to IPNW, Torres and Larson reviewed the case in light of the new evidence and conducted independent interviews of new witnesses.
Satterberg’s office moved to vacate the conviction and dismissed the charges, leading to Olebar’s release from prison on Dec. 20.
One of the men tracked down by the students has since been arrested, charged and convicted of a different crime.
Carsley and Kline were in court for Friday’s hearing.
“It’s been a really long process,” Carsley said. “So it’s nice to see it come to fruition.”
Praise for officials
Olebar’s attorney, Todd Maybrown, praised the prosecutor’s office for its willingness to take another look at the case and assure justice occurred, and the state Attorney General’s Office for determining Olebar was entitled to the compensation.
Maybrown also singled out Olebar’s wife for convincing the IPNW to investigate. The couple married in 2009 while he was still in prison.
“He’s lived through an ordeal that none of us should have to bear,” said Maybrown, who called the compensation a reward but noted Olebar deserved a lot more.
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 can 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.
State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the compensation law and attended the hearing, said Olebar and his daughter also will be eligible for tuition waivers at state colleges.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives.Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich