‘A desperate person’s last hope’: Innocence Project of Minnesota helps free man who spent 11 years behind bars

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David Schultz sat down across from Terry Olson at Stillwater Prison, meeting for the first time in a room designated for private attorney-client discussions. 

Initially, Olson’s lack of faith in the criminal justice system was in dramatic contrast with that of Schultz, a confident lawyer. Olson had dealt with years’ worth of bad lawyers, bad trials, bad luck. 

Seven years behind bars weighed on his mind. The constant noise, the impossibility of escape, the pent-up rage of a man without freedom.

“The anger just sort of rolled right off him,” Schultz said. “You could just feel how angry he was. He didn’t say it this way, but the impression was, ‘Who the hell are you? Why should I believe anything you tell me? What do you even know about my case?’”

Terry Olson, a Minnesota man who was freed by the Innocence Project of Minnesota in 2016 after spending 11 yearsin prison, holds the hand of his attorney, David Schultz. The Innocence Project has helped release five wrongfully convicted men from behind bars, including Olson. (Photo courtesy of the Innocence Project of Minnesota)

Schultz, then a partner at Minneapolis litigation firm Maslon LLC, was one of the lawyers tasked by the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) with reversing the 2007 conviction that sent Olson to prison for the 1979 death of Jeff Hammill.

IPMN, founded in 2001, is an independent organization that aims to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted. It had successfully secured the release of four people before its representation of Olson. 

FREEING OLSON

The organization sent Schultz to Stillwater Prison in 2012 to interview Olson about the case, hoping its team of volunteer lawyers could accomplish what other defense attorneys had tried and failed to do – get justice for Olson.

“[Schultz] said, ‘This is going to take a while, but I’m going to get you home,’” Olson said. “You can’t forget that coming out of the mouth of any lawyer. 

“I knew it. When he left that day, I knew that guy was going to get me out of there. I believed him.”

IPMN first offered help on the Olson case in 2009, but couldn’t officially get involved until Olson exhausted certain appeals. When its official involvement began in 2012, IPMN wanted to show the flaws in the trial that sent Olson to prison in 2007, nearly 30 years after Hammill’s death.

Hammill was found on the side of a Wright County road outside of Buffalo with a fatal head injury. Investigators initially ruled the cause of death as undetermined. They questioned Olson, who gave Hammill a ride to a party earlier in the evening. Olson passed two polygraph tests before the case was eventually closed. 

However, in 2003 the case was reopened, and Olson and two others were charged. Olson’s arrest came in 2005, and he was held in jail for 23 months awaiting trial. 

Controversy around the trial stemmed mainly from the prosecution’s use of a witness named Dale Todd, who was one of the defendants in the case and whom the Innocence Project called “mentally ill.” Todd testified against Olson but later told IPMN he, Olson and the third defendant were not involved in Hammill’s death.

Schultz said he was surprised the prosecution had managed to get a conviction during trial.

“There was absolutely nothing physical tying [Olson] to the scene,” he said.

The result of the disputed trial was a 17-year sentence for Olson.

“I knew how I ended up there. But I had no clue which direction I was going,” Olson said. “[Prison] was torturous. Every minute-and-a-half, a frickin’ toilet flushed. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is my life now?’”

Five years later, Olson met Schultz for the first time. Julie Jonas, the legal director of IPMN, said six lawyers and at least a dozen law students contributed in the effort to exonerate Olson. 

Jonas put in at least 2,000 hours herself, she said. Schultz said that, based on his then-hourly fee at Maslon, the amount of time he spent on the case was worth more than $1 million.

"At some points, it was every day that we would talk on the phone,” Schultz said about his conversations with Olson during the years of litigation. “More typically, we would go long periods where nothing was happening and I would visit him every month or two, which I know was frustrating to him.”

Eventually, the waiting game ended – in large part because of Todd, the man who testified against Olson during the 2007 trial.

Olson and his mother, Gladys, embrace after Olson was released from a Faribault jail in 2016.

In what Schultz called the “smoking gun” that could get Olson out of prison, Todd allowed IPMN access to documentation of a private conversation he had with a mental health professional in 2007. According to Schultz, the conversation encompassed Todd explaining he had wrongfully accused Olson, and the prosecution had instructed him to do so.

“We got this document, and it was in the possession of law enforcement and it was clearly exculpatory,” Schultz said. “It was different from any other statement that was made, given the circumstances in which it was made. And the prosecution had never turned it over [to the defense]. And that is a violation of the Constitution.”

Olson could either continue to fight his case or he could walk out of prison on the condition that he would not sue the county for damages related to the withholding of evidence, according to Schultz. The latter option, however, would not result in Olson’s exoneration.

Olson was convicted in 2007 for the 1979 death of Jeff Hammill. Olson’s release from p ison did not exonerate him, but he maintains his innocence.

“When I called Terry to tell him this, you might think it was the best day of Terry’s life. I think it was probably the second-worst day of his life,” Schultz said. “He was in tears. He was like, ‘What am I supposed to do? What do I do? I’ve been fighting this for 11 years. Are you telling me that I can get out but I’m not exonerated?’”

After weeks of consideration, Olson decided to take the deal. He said that seeing his elderly mother again was the biggest factor. After walking out of prison, he got that wish, along with the freedom he had sought for more than a decade. 

In a September 2016 Star Tribune report, Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly said he continues to believe Olson was guilty of killing Hammill. Kelly said his office agreed to release Olson because he had already served more time than he would have faced under 1980 sentencing guidelines. 

OLSON CASE TIMELINE

1979: Jeff Hammill’s death
2001: Innocence Project of Minnesota founded
2003: Hammill’s case reopened
2005: Terry Olson arrested
2007: Olson convicted
2012: IPMN starts work on Olson’s case
2016: Olson freed from Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault

AFTER HIS RELEASE

Olson’s release was not without consequence.

“I came home to nothing,” Olson said. “Everything I had was gone. Right down to my dog.” 

He added: “I’m 59. I’m trying to get it all back.”

Olson said he’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggles at times to move forward with his life. His path to a normal life was aided by his old employer, who gave him back the job he had before he was sentenced in 2007. 

Schultz is now a U.S. magistrate judge. He was presented with IPMN’s “Never Forgotten” award in 2016.

Since Olson’s release, he and Schultz have stayed in contact, and both vividly remember their first encounter.

IPMN, described by Jonas as “a desperate person’s last hope,” turned thousands of hours of volunteer legal work into a new life for Olson.

Since his release, Olson has been taking exams with the goal of becoming a certified paralegal. He said he plans to use those skills to assist IPMN in the future.

“I still have a little bit of a life to lead,” he said.

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