IPNW attorney Fernanda Torres served as lead attorney on Olebar's case.
IPNW attorney Fernanda Torres served as lead attorney on Olebar's case.Photo by Joshua Bessex
The 2013 holiday season meant a great deal to Brandon Olebar, who, after 10 years of wrongful incarceration, got to enjoy the festivities with his family for the first time in over a decade. Olebar’s release comes thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW), a clinic based out of the UW Law School.
“There’s nothing like working to free somebody who’s in prison for a crime they didn’t commit,” said Jacqueline McMurtrie, director and founder of the IPNW. “And to have it happen right before Christmas makes it even more joyous. But still, there’s a tragedy mixed in with that, because he spent 10 years in prison for something he didn’t do.”
In February of 2003, Olebar’s sister’s boyfriend was robbed and beaten by what he estimated to be six to eight Native American men with long hair and feather tattoos under their eyes. Two days after the crime, the victim was given a photo layout by the police where he identified Olebar.
Although Olebar had an alibi for the time of the attack and didn’t match the physical description of the perpetrators — he had short hair and no facial tattoos -— the eyewitness testimony was enough to convict. He was sentenced to 16 ½ years in prison for his alleged role in the crime.
According to Fernanda Torres, the lead attorney on Olebar’s case, alibi failure in the face of mistaken eyewitness testimony is not uncommon.
“The leading cause of wrongful conviction is eyewitness identification,” Torres said. “And 67 percent of those wrongfully convicted had alibi testimony that is often discounted by juries when confronted with other evidence.”
Olebar and his wife Mely didn’t give up. The IPNW accepted the application and took on the case in fall of 2011. Second-year law students Kathleen Kline and Nikki Carsley were assigned to the case and dove in headfirst. Kline and Carsley managed to track down the actual perpetrators of the crime and got them to sign sworn statements admitting their involvement and Olebar’s innocence.
“The idea of getting more familiar with what had happened at trials was attractive to me, [learning about] the nightmare of the criminal justice system,” said Kline about why she got involved with the IPNW. “I think everyone can get behind the mission to investigate and help people who are being wrongfully incarcerated.”
For the next step, Torres, instead of using the new evidence to push for a new trial, brought it to the King County Prosecutors’ office. They launched an investigation of their own, ultimately dismissing the charges brought against Olebar.
“I do see this as an issue where all sides want to get it right,” said McMurtrie. “Not just the IPNW, but the prosecutor wants to make sure the right person is in prison for the crime.”
Although every case the IPNW handles is unique, McMurtrie called Olebar’s case “unusual” based on the prosecutor’s willingness to “review the evidence we brought forward with an open mind, and then join in the motion to dismiss the charges.”
“It’s a case where the law students did an incredible job, [and] Torres is a very thoughtful and brilliant attorney,” said McMurtrie. “And the state did the right thing by reviewing the evidence and agreeing that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.”
Olebar is the fifth exoneration from the IPNW in 2013, and the 13th total. While in the future, he may file a claim for wrongful conviction (an option made possible by a bill the IPNW helped to pass last year), for now he is happy to be at home with his family.
“It’s unreal,” said Olebar in a statement. “I was ecstatic to finally be heard when the Innocence Project Northwest took my case. My wife, the students, and my lawyer fought for me, and it means so much that they did that for me.”
Reach Science Editor Zosha Millman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @zosham
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