Press Release

Tarrant County District Attorney Dismisses Murder Charges Against John Nolley Based on Actual Innocence, Ending His 21 Year Quest for Justice

By Innocence Staff

Nina Morrison, John Nolley, and Reagan Wynn. Photo by Ron Jenkins.

(Fort Worth, Texas – October 3, 2018) Today Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson filed legal papers before Judge Louis Sturns to dismiss 1997 murder charges against Innocence Project client John Nolley based on actual innocence. At a court hearing attended by Nolley, his family and legal team, and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Judge Sturns granted the motion, and Nolley was exonerated of murder after twenty-one years.

Nolley served 19 years of a life sentence before he was released on bond in 2016 with the consent of D.A. Wilson, who had agreed to reinvestigate his case through her Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) shortly after taking office. In May 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that Nolley’s 1998 conviction should be overturned based newly discovered evidence that critical information regarding two state witnesses had not been provided to Nolley’s lawyers in 1998.   Nolley’s lawyers in 1998. But the original charges remained pending until today’s decision by prosecutors to dismiss the case against Nolley entirely.

“Today marks the end of an incredibly painful journey for John Nolley, who wrongly served 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “Yet this day would have never come without the extraordinary work and dedication of District Attorney Wilson and her Conviction Integrity Unit, as well as the detectives in the Bedford Police Department, who put hundreds of hours into a joint effort to reinvestigate this case and seek the truth.”

“Today marks the end of an incredibly painful journey for John Nolley, who wrongly served 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit.” Nina Morrison

In July 2015, just months after taking office, District Attorney Wilson agreed to reinvestigate Nolley’s case through her office’s newly formed CIU. The CIU collaborated with the Innocence Project and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn in reinvestigating the 1996 murder of Sharon McLane. Since the investigation began, the District Attorney’s office has spoken to more than 70 witnesses. Together, prosecutors and the Innocence Project also conducted more than 100 forensic tests, including DNA and latent print analyses. The complete results of this testing and investigation are not yet public while law enforcement continues to pursue other suspects in McLane’s killing. But today, the District Attorney announced that her office had reached the conclusion that Nolley’s indictment should be dismissed based on actual innocence.

McLane’s body was found stabbed to death in her home on Saturday, December 14, 1996. Her body was partially clothed, indicating that she had been the victim of an actual or attempted sexual assault. The murder occurred sometime after she finished her shift at the Advantage Rent-A-Car on Wednesday, December 11.

The following day, a married couple who lived in the apartment complex, heard what they described at trial as “blood-curdling screams” of an adult female coming from the direction of McLane’s apartment at slightly after 3 pm. Approximately 15 to 30 minutes later, the husband observed an unfamiliar tall white man wearing a black cowboy hat walking out of the breezeway adjacent to McLane’s apartment. A neighbor and maintenance worker also saw a man fitting that description 15 to 20 feet from McLane’s apartment. Nolley is African American and was working at this time. After McLane didn’t show up for work on Saturday, December 14, a friend was dispatched to her apartment to look for her and her body was found, as well as three bloody knives and piece of paper with a bloody palm print.

Although police were initially convinced that the assailant was likely the male in the cowboy hat who had been observed, Nolley became a suspect after police learned discovered phone records indicating that Nolley had visited the victim in her apartment the night of December 11th.  Nolley was friends with McLane before her death: they had visited one another’s homes on several occasions, and Nolley and his girlfriend had recently hosted McLane and her young daughter for Thanksgiving dinner.  he had visited her home on the evening of December 11th.  While not initially forthcoming about having seen the victim on December 11th, Nolley eventually gave a voluntary statement acknowledging his visit with the victim, explaining that he had initially lied to police because he was afraid to admit that he had sold her marijuana that night.

“I do not have any resentment toward anyone at this point.” John Nolley

Other than two beer bottles (which Nolley had already informed police about) found in the victim’s trash containing a fingerprint matching Nolley, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene at the time he was charged.  Nevertheless, he was convicted of the crime based largely on the uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informant. informants.  New evidence uncovered during the reinvestigation revealed that the informant in fact gave perjured testimony at Nolley’s trial.  John O’Brien, who had a long criminal record, claimed that Nolley confessed to him while they were both in the jail law library.  The alleged confession, however, did not match the crime, and the CIU discovered documents revealing that O’Brien had been a state informant in numerous other cases, and lied to the jury when he claimed that he had never “snitched” on anyone but Nolley.

Two other witnesses claimed that Nolley made inculpatory statements regarding the crime. The CIU discovered that both witnesses gave contradictory testimony before the grand jury, with one witness telling the grand jury that Nolley had never indicated he had “cut” or stabbed anyone, despite claiming at trial that he had made such a statement.

“This day would have never come without the extraordinary work and dedication of District Attorney Wilson and her Conviction Integrity Unit, as well as the detectives in the Bedford Police Department, who put hundreds of hours into a joint effort to reinvestigate this case and seek the truth.”

After his conviction, Nolley sought the help of the Innocence Project and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn, who donated his time pro bono to the case. With the support of the D.A.’s office, an expert using new digital technology that wasn’t available at the time of the trial examined a bloody print on the paper found on the victim’s body and concluded that it didn’t come from Nolley.

Nolley’s case is also notable in that even before today’s exoneration, it has already led to significant legal reforms.

In 2017, the year after CDA Wilson recommended that Nolley’s conviction be vacated, the Texas legislature passed the most comprehensive legislation in the country regulating the use of jailhouse informant testimony.  The law requires county and district attorney offices to track information, including benefits provided to jailhouse informants, in exchange for testimony, previous cases in which they provided testimony and benefits provides in those cases, and their complete criminal history. This information must be disclosed to defense attorneys, which allows them to raise issues of credibility in court so that judges and juries can more accurately assess jailhouse informant testimony and ensures that prosecutors have accurate information on jailhouse informants so they can better assess whether to use them as witnesses and make all required disclosures to the defense.  The new statewide law is modeled on an informant tracking and disclosure policy that CDA Wilson and her CIU director developed for Tarrant County prosecutions in the wake of Nolley’s 2016 release from prison.

Incentivized jailhouse testimony has contributed to approximately 15 percent of the nation’s 362 DNA exonerations, and the Texas law stands as a model for other states.

Since Nolley’s 2016 release from prison, he has gotten married (to a childhood friend), and the couple has a 10-month-old baby, John Nolley III. He has worked in local factories and real estate companies, and recently started his own maintenance and janitorial business. Today’s exoneration based on “actual innocence” will finally make Nolley eligible for financial compensation from the State of Texas for the 19 years he served in prison.

Nolley was surrounded by family members and local exonerees when he was exonerated in court today.

Related: Texas Prosecutors Rethink the Use of Incentivized Witnesses in Light of Innocence Project Case

John Nolley. The Innocence Project.
Photo by Ron Jenkins.

20 Comments

  1. Allen Remillard

    I am so happy for Mr. Nolley. The state of Texas doesn’t seem quite so barbaric today. I’m ecstatic that Mr. Nolley will be eligible for compensation. No amount of money can ever make up for the 19 years of his life that the state took. I sincerely wish nothing but the best for Mr. Nolleyand his family and friends. And of course, huge kudos to the Innocence Project for getting Mr. Nolley out. Such agencies need every piece of help they can get to help these people. Even one innocent person in prison is too much. Take care and be safe Mr. Nolley.

  2. Minnie Spencer

    Congrats to Mr.Nolley and family.
    I wish you all many more blessing from the Lord.
    Thanks to everyone involved in helping get another innocent person free.
    Have a wonderful and Blessed life.

  3. Wesley Nielsen

    I think Mr. Remillard’s letter says it all. For those of us who got the e-mail from the Innocence Project, and for the family members, and for the members of the court and the officers, I am sure that most, if not all, are relieved that Mr. Nolley’s burden has been taken from him and are rejoicing, as am I, with is freedom.

  4. Corrine Cole

    Wonderful news about Mr. Nolley. The Innocence Project is making progress for so many who are incarcerated but innocent. The success of The Innocence Project is ultimately important on several levels. The first being that with the help provided by the IP legal staff, the fact that forensic science has changed with the advent and usage of DNA, leading to more thorough evidence collection at crime scenes, the improved documentation and the spot-light directed on the District Attorney and staff in charge, the innocent will NOT be charged instead of the ‘guilty’. With the possibility of a case being challenged and overturned, those same law enforcement agencies are now aware of the future reversals possible. Hopefully all states will eventually compensate prisoners exonerated.

  5. Robert Binnie

    Very inspirational.

  6. Angilen Adkins

    I have been following the Innocenceproject recently in the last 5-6 months. For two reason……to better understand what and how the project does what it do….I am truly grateful for the work of giving others’ hope and another chance in life.
    It just baffles me to know there are so many who have taken an oath on the side of justice and violate that oath with no hesitation all in the name of pride.
    To the second reason, do you investigate in all states? And how does a case becomes a “project”?

  7. Lawyer Stanley

    Justice in America is like Clorox works well for whites but not colors,there needs to be reform in this corrupt justice system,and prosecutors and judges need to be held accountable..

  8. Glorianne Eder

    Simply wonderful! All the best to you Mr. Nolley and family.

  9. Kevin Nicks

    I am so happy for Mr. Nolley and his friends and family and his long time support team. I believe there are many more who are still waiting and hoping that truth in their cases are revieled. This is a positive step in your life John. Hopefully you can talk with Our Youth and help become an educational tool in Our much needed communities. Welcome home sir

  10. Mark Tuggle

    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

  11. Tracey Hogan

    19 years. Let that sink in.

  12. Rissa Tai

    19 years that can’t be taken back and yet, Mr. Noelly has a wonderful outlook on life. Wishing you all the best and thankful for the supporters that advocated to get your freedom back.

  13. Ronald Stokes

    Was on Ferguson unit with this guy…is a stand up…guy…

  14. Andrea B

    I am very happy for this gentleman. The Clorox justice system in American needs to stop. I know someone who got sent away for 10 years first time offender and his white codefender with a rap sheet as long as the US got 3 years because he lied on this young man and the victim was pressured to take side with the seasoned criminal and sent a young black boy to prison when the evidence vey clear. The USA only country that imprisoned children and is very proud! U.Stand.Alone. USA if you a black!

  15. Andrea B

    I am very happy for this gentleman. The Clorox justice system in American needs to stop. I know someone who got sent away for 10 years first time offender and his white codefender with a rap sheet as long as the US got 3 years because he lied on this young man and the victim was pressured to take side with the seasoned criminal and sent a young black boy to prison when the evidence vey clear. The USA only country that imprisoned children and is very proud! U.Stand.Alone. USA if you a black!

  16. Tom Collura

    To Tracy Hogan. I hope what you meant by that comment. Was we need to change our legal system in a positive sense. That guy shouldn’t have spent 19 seconds in prison! Our legal system has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. It is designed to put people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit! The legal system holds all the cards. You are guilty until proven innocent! Thank God for the innocence project!

  17. Martha Eberle

    I agree with all above sentiments. Through the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I have talked with several innocent men released from TX prisons after years of incarceration. I am struck by their calmness, humility, joy of course, and lack of feelings of revenge. Wanting to make a good life of the years they have left, I am in awe of them. Compensation helps to get on track, but NOTHING can substitute for the YEARS when they could have had families, built businesses, enjoyed freedom …. and yet, they are not vengeful. MUCH more has to be done to hold prosecutors accountable. In TX, they are elected, and their conviction rate is a big selling point at election time. INNOCENT until PROVEN guilty, often does not come true, because there is so much pressure put on the police and prosecutor to CONVICT whoever is in custody. Just as doctors vow: “do no harm,” … that should be for the prosecution side of the law.

  18. Delia Perez Meyer

    So excited and happy for this great news about Mr. Nolley !!! It truly is a blessing from above !!! Special thanks to everyone who worked on this case because no one can imagine all the trials and tribulations our families go through in trying to save an innocent man from death row or life in prison !! This case is similar to my own brother’s case and we pray that someday soon our brother, will also be released !!! Keep up the great work, everyone !!! Innocence Projects across the country; you rock !!! God bless you, all !!! xoxo Delia Perez Meyer, Sister of Louis Castro Perez

  19. Gale Sanders

    I agree with Martha Eberle. Prosecutors…and others, but especially the prosecutors need to be held accountable for their actions. They are in control of the cases. I don’t know if Mr. Nolley will be compensated, but he should be along with any other person who has spent time in prison and found innocent. Maybe if not only the prosecutors were held accountable, the state in which an innocent person was convicted and spent time in prison should be required to compensate him or her, but also to provide workforce training in whatever field they wish to seek employment so that each of them can become productive members of society.

  20. diane ross

    God bless him and let this be the start across America to free others who walked in his shoes! Please donate to help others win their freedom. This must spread far and wide to mske people aware of the injustice in our courts. If it happened to him it can happen to anyone. No one can be sure until this law has legs.

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