In 2004, Brandon Olebar, 21, was convicted of participating in a violent home invasion robbery in Seattle, Washington. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison and served over 10 years before his case was dismissed.  The crime was brutal, but didn’t garner headlines. The victim had a hostile breakup with his girlfriend, Olebar’s sister, Nacoel. She enlisted her friends and family to get revenge. The group went to the victim’s home, broke in, and beat the man severely.  The police quickly zeroed in on Nacoel Olebar. Identifying her alleged accomplices proved difficult. The victim was shown photo arrays — a montage of 6 photos, 1 the suspect and 5 “fillers”. He identified several people, including Brandon Olebar. Without the victim identification, there was no other evidence against Olebar.

He didn’t have the cleanest past; he had just gotten out of prison for a drug offense and a car theft. He was on parole and lived with his grandparents.

The Innocence Project accepted Olebar’s case and approached the King County Prosecution’s Office in 2013. Mark Larson, didn’t work on the original case, but was Chief Criminal Deputy at the time and he was instantly skeptical of all innocence claims.  This case had no DNA evidence and there was nothing definitive, so “how could we justify undoing a verdict…where the jury…heard the evidence, found…the defendant guilty – beyond a reasonable doubt?”  Larson told the project that he would look into the case anyway.

The Innocence Project argued that the conviction should be overturned because of “newly discovered evidence”. This evidence consisted of affidavits of others who said they participated in the home invasion. Each asserted that Olebar was not there.  Larson didn’t trust the affidavits because the statute of limitations had run out on the case and the witnesses risked nothing for their testimony. He called it “a circumstance that called for a healthy does of skepticism.”

The Innocence Project also presented analysis of the eyewitness testimony by a social scientist. The expert examined the trauma the victim suffered, a leading cause of misidentifications by victims. He had been struck over the head so hard he was rendered unconscious. The expert also stated that the victim had probably met Olebar before and was transferring him to fill in the gaps in his memory. The victim suspected his ex-girlfriend and therefore suspected her brother.

Larson saw these as mere theories.

The Innocence Project allowed Larson to question Olebar himself. Larson, accompanied by the original trial prosecutor, reviewed the time of the crime, Olebar’s alibi, and his reactions during the proceedings, from arrest through charging, trial, and conviction.  Olebar steadfastly claimed his innocence, consistently over the years. Larson found that fact compelling.  Prosecutors doing the review were also given access to his trial attorney, who told them that he refused to plead guilty because he was innocent. A plea deal had been offered to Olebar for a lesser charge, which would have resulted in a minor sentence.

Later, Olebar was offered a second plea deal, after conviction. Because the case was circumstantial and it was difficult to determine guilt or innocence, the witnesses were sketchy, and there were no forensics, the prosecutors turned to negotiating a new plea deal with Olebar. This would have seen him released, but he refused. He had served 10 years and would not waver on the principle of the matter.

After the review, Dan Satterberg, the elected prosecutor, decided the case should be dismissed.

Larson said in a Marshall Project article, “Although the law requires great deference to jury verdicts and must support finality in cases that have been fully adjudicated…the evidence supporting this conviction was simply too thin…”

Larson said that in January of 2014 Olebar was invited to the prosecutor’s office. He accepted. He was told that the decision to vacate his conviction was influenced by the very prosecutors who said 10 years earlier that he was guilty. The office apologized.

“The decision to apologize was intentional…institutions, like people, need to be compassionate, discerning, and possess humility. In this case, that meant undoing a decision that we did not believe was sound. It also just felt like the right thing to do.”

“Too often, good prosecutors have watched professional colleagues contort themselves to deny and discount compelling evidence that seems to undermine a conviction from the past. This defensiveness does not serve our cause…nor does it serve the interest of those who may be wrongfully convicted.”

“Prosecutors need not be defensive. Possessed of the knowledge that our system is not fail-safe, we must arm ourselves with all of the tools that will help us get it right from the outset of a case. The last decade has seen a decrease in exonerations…due in part to the increasing number of…forensic sciences and new forms of evidence…This is good news for those seeking the truth.”

“Prosecutors are not solely advocates for conviction. Our core function is to determine the weight and the reliability of the evidence…Good prosecutors will always be willing to try tough cases, but we must also be willing to admit when the evidence is insufficient and to make the choice not to charge, to dismiss, or to vacate convictions. It is when we are engaged in this crucial function that we are closest to the guiding principle that our goal is not simply to win cases, but to do justice.”

The King’s County Prosecution’s Office does not measure “conviction rates” like many other offices.

“Such a metric flies in the face of the very culture that we [should] foster…where success is measured by doing the right thing. Sometimes that means refusing to charge, dismissing a case where the evidence has shifted, or trying a case that is difficult, but righteous, even though success is unlikely.”

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