John Earl Nolley was exonerated Wednesday after spending 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
State District Judge Louis Sturns apologized to Nolley for the 21 years that he lost — 19 years in custody plus two years waiting for his name to be cleared — after he was accused of murdering a woman who was a good friend.
“I have signed the order dismissing your case,” Sturns said. “I want to apologize for what happened to you. I realize that cannot take back 21 years, but to the extent that words can express our sorrow, I apologize for what happened.”
Nolley, 44, was convicted based on false testimony from two jailhouse informants and sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for the death of Sharon McLane, who was found stabbed 57 times in her Bedford apartment on Dec. 14, 1996. He was freed in 2016 after new evidence was discovered, but he was not cleared as investigators continued to work the case.
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On Wednesday, he was finally pronounced innocent.
Nolley was released from prison because of the work of the Innocence Project and District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who set up the Conviction Integrity Unit. The unit, established in 2015, examines old cases to ensure that innocent people aren’t in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The unit collaborated with the Innocence Project and Bedford police department investigators. They interviewed more than 70 witnesses and re-tested more than 100 pieces of evidence. DNA evidence eventually cleared Nolley.
“I got to give honor to God,” Nolley said. “There’s no other way I could be here. In my right mind, having gone through all that. I thank the district attorney and the Bedford police department and the system as a whole. We don’t always make the right decisions. But Sharen Wilson did the honorable thing in this situation. I thank you a lot.”
Life has changed since Nolley got out of prison two years ago, after the courts set aside his murder conviction.
He got married to Kimya Nolley and they have a son, 10-month-old John Nolley III.
Because of the circumstances that put Nolley in prison for 19 years a state law was passed regulating the use of jailhouse informants. The law was based on the practice in Tarrant County, which maintains a database of informants, the information they offer and what types of incentives they have been offered.
The Tarrant County district attorney’s office was the second office in the United States to institute such a policy.
Some of the false testimony came from John O’Brien, who was facing 25 to 99 years for stealing farm and welding equipment.
Nolley, arrested in the murder in 1997, became acquainted with O’Brien in the Tarrant County Jail as he awaited trial. O’Brien told investigators that Nolley told him he killed McLane after she resisted his attempts to rob her and because he saw her blood on his shoes.
O’Brien reached a plea agreement that resulted in a sentence of 10 years deferred adjudication probation.
Nolley becomes eligible for payments from a state fund that compensates the wrongfully incarcerated.
Texas statutes entitle the wrongfully incarcerated to receive a lump sum of $80,000 for each year they spend in prison.
Since 1991, Texas has paid more than $116 million to exonorees, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Texas has one of the most generous compensation programs for those who are wrongfully imprisoned. Texas has exonerated 349 people since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The state exonerates more people than any other in the nation.
“We cannot change the past,” Wilson said after the hearing. “But we are committed to learning from it, so we can ensure that errors are never repeated.
“John Nolley’s legacy to the criminal justice system will live on through the legislation his case inspired, ensuring no person should have to defend himself against unsubstantiated, unreliable jailhouse testimony.”