Locked away 19 years for the deadly stabbing of a Bedford woman, John Nolley has spent the past two years working to clear his name.
Nolley was released from prison on May 17, 2016, the result of a joint effort by the Conviction Integrity Unity in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, established in 2015, and the Innocence Project.
On Wednesday, Nolley took another step toward ultimately clearing his record when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state, overturned his murder conviction.
“We are glad, but not surprised, by the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to uphold the trial court’s finding and our recommendations on this case," said Sharen Wilson, Tarrant County district attorney. “The very issues the Court of Criminal Appeals references regarding the use of jailhouse informant testimony in John Nolley’s case were the basis for our office to implement the jailhouse informant reform policy that went on to become state law in Texas.”
Nolley, 44, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of killing Sharon McLane in her Bedford apartment on Dec. 14, 1996. A friend of Nolley’s, McLane had been stabbed 57 times.
False testimony from two informants, John O’Brien and Jason Vandergriff, both of whom lied to prosecutors, tainted the trial process to the extent that the district attorney’s office agreed that Nolley's pleas for relief had merit.
Nolley was arrested in 1997 and became acquainted with O’Brien while in the Tarrant County jail. O’Brien told investigators that Nolley confessed to him that he killed McLane after she resisted his attempts to rob her and because he saw her blood on his shoes.
O’Brien, who faced 25 to 99 years for stealing farm and welding equipment, later reached a plea agreement that resulted in a sentence of 10 years deferred adjudication probation.
Cory Session, whose brother Tim Cole died in prison but was later exonerated for a sexual assault he did not commit, characterized O’Brien as a “professional snitch."
Since gaining his freedom, Nolley has married and his wife has given birth to a son, John Nolley III, said Nina Morrison, one of the attorneys representing Nolley.
Morrison credited Wilson's office with helping to write the bill in Texas that keeps a tighter rein on jailhouse informant testimony.
Wilson's office was also instrumental in putting together the mechanisms that keep track of the information those informants provide so that it cannot be used to convict the innocent, Morrison said.
"Their work on the Nolley case has possibly helped hundreds of others facing the same issues," Morrison said.
The Tarrant County district attorney's office is continuing an investigation into who killed McLane and is simultaneously continuing the investigation into the Nolley case, Morrison said.
The district attorney's investigation will once and for all establish whether Nolley is actually innocent and pave the way for him to access Texas benefits designed to compensate the wrongfully convicted, one of the most generous programs in the United States.
"The Nolley case is a clear example of how, by addressing individual cases, conviction integrity units can institute real reform and best practices for future cases," Wilson said. "The collaborative partnership on this case between our office, the Bedford Police Department and the Innocence Project demonstrates a single-minded commitment to what should be at the heart of every conviction integrity unit: discovering the truth.”
This story includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.