FORT WORTH — It took almost 20 years, but Tuesday, John Earl Nolley heard a judge tell him he’s a free man.
Nolley was surrounded by his entire family, including his mother and his two sons who grew up while he was in prison.
“It’s just overwhelming,” Nolley said with an arm around each of his sons. “Too many emotions to just focus and channel in on one.”
Nolley was convicted in 1998 for the 1996 murder of Sharon McLane, a Bedford woman stabbed nearly 60 times. He has maintained his innocence from the beginning, and the key evidence against him — a bloody fingerprint and a jailhouse informant — are starting to agree.
Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck said, “In the words of one prosecutor who had written something in the file, ‘If we had known about this fingerprint in blood and that it didn’t come from John Nolley, we wouldn’t have charged this case.'”
Another lawyer from the Innocence Project, Nina Morrison, added, “The lead jailhouse informant who testified that he had never snitched on anybody and would never offer to, had made offers in between eight and ten other cases.”
The Innocence Project has been working to free Nolley for 10 years. When Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson created the Conviction Integrity Unit shortly after she was elected, they got the break they needed.
“To their credit, they immediately said, ‘This taints the whole process. Mr Nolley didn’t get a fair trial,'” Morrison said.
This is the first conviction the unit has successfully vacated, making Nolley a free man at the age of 42.
Prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry him, but the Innocence Project says there is nothing to connect Nolley to the murder.
“God has sustained everything I love,” Nolley said. “It’s time to move on.”