The Innocence Project of Minnesota is pleased to announce the release from prison of its long time client Terry Olson. Mr. Olson’s release could not have happened without years of work by David Schultz and numerous attorneys and staff at Maslon, LLP as well as staff at the Innocence Project of Minnesota and students from Hamline University, the University of Minnesota Law School, and Mitchell/Hamline School of Law.
Mr. Olson was convicted in 2007 for the 1979 death Jeff Hammill. Mr. Hammill had been found dead by the side of the road just outside of Buffalo, MN. At the time of his death, law enforcement investigated the case as a possible roadside accident or homicide, and ultimately the case was closed with no charges being filed. One of the lead investigators on the case, retired Chief Deputy Sheriff Jim Powers, believes to this day that the case was an accident, and Mr. Hammill was likely accidentally hit by a piece of farm equipment being moved in the night when the roads are less crowded. Now retired, Chief Deputy Powers contacted the Innocence Project of Minnesota early on in its representation of Mr. Olson, and continues to be one of Mr. Olson’s strongest advocates because of his strong belief that no crime ever occurred.
In 2003, police reopened the case by interrogating and ultimately securing a confession from a mentally ill man, Dale Todd. They told him that in 1979 they had taken and kept evidence from his car that contained biological evidence that proved he was involved in a murder. This was not true. The police had no such evidence but Todd was so frightened and unstable that he confessed and implicated Mr. Olson and another man, Ron Michaels. Mr. Michaels was brought to trial first in 2006. At Ron Michaels’ trial, Mr. Todd admitted that he had been coerced to falsely confess and falsely implicate Mr. Michaels and Mr. Olson. Mr. Michaels was acquitted. Several months later when Mr. Olson was brought to trial, Mr. Todd was coerced into reverting to the story he told police in 2003. Mr. Olson was convicted and sent to prison for 17 years. Days later, Mr. Todd wrote a letter to the trial judge explaining he had lied at Olson’s trial. No hearing was held on Mr. Todd’s recantation.
In 2012, Mr. Todd contacted the Innocence Project of Minnesota. For the first time in many years, his mental health issues were now stabilized with medication. He wanted to clear his conscience and again tell the truth – as he had at Mr. Michael’s trial – that none of them were involved in the death of Mr. Hammill and that the police had frightened him into making a false confession. He provided a detailed affidavit explaining the circumstances of his false coerced confession. In addition, at a hearing on Mr. Olson’s request for a new trial, Mr. Olson’s public defenders admitted that they provided him with poor representation in several key ways. One of the attorneys acknowledged that there were budget cuts and staffing problems in his office, that his caseload was unusually large, and he missed several important issues in Mr. Olson’s case.
Although the judge ultimately denied Mr. Olson’s request for a new trial, the Wright County Attorney’s Office realized the unfairness of Mr. Olson’s situation. Their office agreed that in the interest of justice Mr. Olson should be immediately released from prison. Mr. Olson has always declared his innocence and the many attorneys and law students who have worked on his case for years also believe he is innocent. However after more than 10 years of incarceration Mr. Olson is very excited to spend time with his family and to have his freedom back.