OKLAHOMA CITY – An Oklahoma City man who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1991 slaying of a homeless man was released Monday after testing on DNA recovered at the crime scene failed to match him.
A judge vacated the sentence and dismissed the case against Johnny Tallbear, 61, and ordered his immediate release.
Tallbear, who said his birthday was last Friday, expressed wonder at the cellphone he was handed to speak to an Associated Press reporter after he finished a brisket taco at a downtown Oklahoma City restaurant.
"How do you use these things?" Tallbear asked when given the phone by Innocence Project attorney Karen Thompson.
Tallbear, who raised his arms skyward in joy as he exited the courthouse, said he feels "(A) very great sense of relief. I've been fighting this case for 27 years, ever since they put the handcuffs on."
Thompson said the Innocence Project took the case at Tallbear's request and after examining evidence, including blood samples that were recovered at the scene and kept by the local crime laboratory, but failed to match Tallbear.
"He applied. We get all of our cases for the most part from criminal defendants who apply to us and ask for help," then review the case and decide whether to take it. Thompson said Tallbear first applied 15 years ago.
Tallbear was convicted in 1992 in the beating death of a homeless man who has never been positively identified.
He maintained his innocence, and reports at the time said Tallbear screamed at the jury when his conviction was announced.
Prosecutors joined in the motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the case.
"Though we disagree ... as to his actual innocence, we don't believe that it's appropriate to keep him incarcerated at this time," District Attorney David Prater said after the hearing. "Based on the fact that if the jury could have had that (DNA) information in front of them at the time of the trial, they may have reached a different verdict."
It was not clear whether Tallbear will file a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the state.
Thompson said she did not know whether Tallbear will sue and Tallbear said only that his next step is to seek a congressional investigation into Oklahoma's prison and judicial systems.
As for the new technology, such as cellphones, Tallbear sounded in awe.
"It's about everything," he said. "You being gone three decades, everything changes."