Minnesota man freed after decade in prison for 1979 killing

A Minnesota man says freedom from prison is "wonderful" after serving a decade behind bars for a 1979 murder he says he did not commit.

Terry Olson, 57, was released from Faribault Correctional Facility on Tuesday. Olson received credit for time served, but did not receive a legal declaration that he did not commit murder, the Star Tribune (http://strib.mn/2ceTXlq reported.

Olson was convicted in 2007 in Wright County of killing Jeff Hammill, whose body was found on a road outside of Buffalo, Minnesota, in August 1979.

Olson's attorneys and the Innocence Project of Minnesota fought for his release. He faced seven more years in prison and said he accepted the deal that freed him so he could help his mother, who lives in a Twin Cities nursing home.

"I'm ecstatic for Terry and his family," said Julie Jonas, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, who estimated that about 3,000 hours of legal time were spent on the case. "It's been one of the best weeks in my life."

In an interview Friday in his lawyer's Minneapolis office, Olson said that prison "was lonely" and his incarceration "was a nightmare."

"I'm innocent of a crime that in all likelihood never occurred. You feel like you're standing on top of Mount Everest screaming for help, and nobody's listening," Olson said.

But Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly said Friday he continues to believe Olson was guilty of killing Hammill.

"I don't have a hard time sleeping at night," Kelly said.

The prosecutor said his office agreed to Olson's release because he had already served more time than he would have faced under 1980 sentencing guidelines. Hammill's mother agreed to Olson's release, Kelly said.

Hammill was found dead of a head injury on the side of the road around 4 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1979. Olson said Friday that he was at a bar with a friend the night before when they left to go to Olson's sister's house for a party. On the way the two men picked up Hammill, who was hitchhiking, Olson said.

Olson said he had met Hammill three weeks earlier at a fabricating plant where they both worked. Hammill had wanted a ride home and left the party "after about two minutes," Olson said.

"He went walking down the road. That was the last we saw of him," Olson said.

After Hammill's body was found, investigators interviewed people from the party, but no one was charged and the medical examiner listed the cause of death as undetermined.

But the case was reopened in 2003 after an inquiry by Hammill's daughter. The medical examiner changed the cause of death to homicide based on a statement by Olson's friend, who implicated Olson and another man who was at the 1979 party. All three were charged in Hammill's death.

Olson was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison. The friend testified at Olson's trial but later recanted, saying none of the three men were involved in Hammill's death. But the Minnesota Court of Appeals reaffirmed Olson's conviction, and the state Supreme Court declined to review the case.

Hours after being released from prison, Olson said he went to visit his mother, Gladys, in the nursing home.

"To see the look on her face and see her step out of her wheelchair, you can't imagine," Olson said.


Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com