When Brandon Olebar walked free, it was a big deal for prosecutor Mark Larson—and not for the obvious reasons.
Olebar was charged in 2003 for breaking into the King County, Wash., house of his sister’s boyfriend and, along with eight other men, viciously assaulting him. Olebar had always maintained his innocence and he had an alibi, but after the victim identified Olebar as one of the attackers, a jury convicted him. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Olebar’s case eventually caught the attention of two law students working at the Innocence Project Northwest, which works to free wrongly convicted inmates. They believed Olebar, but there was no DNA evidence to exonerate him. What the students brought to Larson, a chief deputy in the Seattle District Attorney’s Office, was less clear-cut: sworn statements from other men who claimed to be the true perpetrators—none of whom could be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run. The Innocence Project also produced an expert who explained the reasons why the victim—who had been beaten unconscious during the crime—may have mistakenly implicated Olebar. It wasn’t rock-solid evidence of innocence, but it was enough to spur Larson to meet with Olebar and re-interrogate the prisoner to test the new information.
In the end, Larson, whose responsibilities include evaluating post-conviction claims of innocence, was persuaded by Olebar’s continued insistence that he did not commit the crime and his flat rejection of a plea bargain that would have led to his immediate release.