Minutes after John Nolley’s murder conviction was overturned, his oldest son got the longest embrace.
Tavan Seaton, 22, picked up his father in the lobby of the Tim Curry Justice Center and swung him around and around.
“I don’t even know where my mind is right now,” Tavan said. “It’s going in a million different directions.”
Other family members and friends also rejoiced after state District Judge Louis Sturns gave Nolley his freedom.
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Nolley, 42, had spent almost 19 years in jail and prison after being convicted of killing Sharon McLane in her Bedford apartment on Dec. 14, 1996. A friend of Nolley’s, she had been stabbed 57 times.
He was not, however, exonerated in the case as Tarrant County investigators continue to look at new evidence. He is not expected to be tried again, attorneys said.
His release came as the result of work by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, the Innocence Project and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn.
Nolley, dressed in a suit and wearing a big smile, hugged supporters and thanked them for standing behind him. He stood for photos with members of the Innocence Project team, including Barry Scheck (who was on the defense team for O.J. Simpson).
“I want to thank God … for keeping me and sustaining me all these years. I want to thank my family and the defense who worked hard and steadily,” Nolley said. “And I want to thank the DA’s office who worked for justice.”
I don’t even know where my mind is right now.
Tavan Seaton, John Nolley’s son
Tavan was 2 and his brother, Bryson, was 3 months old, when his father was arrested and charged with the murder of McLane, a mother of four.
Tavan’s daughters are now 1 year and 3 months old and they received their first hugs from Nolley on Tuesday.
His mother, Alice Samuel, was overcome with joy.
‘Not an insignificant event’
Nolley’s attorneys credited Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson and her recently created Conviction Integrity Unit for their client’s release.
When Scheck and Nina Morrison, also with the Innocence Project, and Wynn, outlined the problems with Nolley’s case, the CIU went right to work, Morrison said.
The problems with the case included false statements from two informants: John O’Brien and Jason Vandergriff, both of whom lied to prosecutors. The testimony of the informants so tainted the trial process that the district attorney’s office agreed that relief for Nolley was warranted, Morrison said.
“The CIU located an incredible amount of contradictory evidence that undermined and in some cases proved that false evidence was presented to the jury,” Morrison said. “This is not an insignificant event. What’s happening is really a credit to the work of the district attorney’s office.”
Scheck, who also represented Nolley, said it’s not often that district attorneys are willing to ferret out the truth regarding old cases and bring them back before the court.
In a prepared statement, Wilson said that the CIU was created for cases like the Nolley case.
“This case is not an exoneration,” Wilson said. “It is an example of how both changes in forensic technology and flaws in the process can lead to the potential for different conclusions with the passage of time.
“It’s been our goal with the CIU that, should we discover any errors, we be committed to finding a solution to prevent future occurrences,” Wilson said. “To prevent a reoccurrence of this issue, we are creating a detailed new policy on the use of jailhouse informants.”
Convicted on May 27, 1998
Nolley was sentenced to life in prison on a murder conviction on May 27, 1998.
In addition to the tainted testimony from O’Brien and Vandergriff, new analysis of bloody palm print found at the crime scene has been linked to another person.
John Nolley was sentenced to life in prison on a murder conviction on May 27, 1998.
According to a brief filed with the court, the new evidence could have possibly convinced a jury of Nolley’s innocence, both his attorney and Tarrant County prosecutors agree.
Forensic experts at the time of Nolley’s trial concluded they could not tell who left a bloody palm print at the scene of the murder, according to a brief filed with the court. But subsequent testing found the print did not belong to Nolley or the victim and indicated the presence of a third person, the brief states.
Nolley acknowledged that he went to McLane’s apartment on Dec. 11, 1996, where they smoked some marijuana and drank some beers, according to the court brief. When questioned by police, Nolley said he was not at the apartment. He later said he was scared because he was on probation for a weapons charge from 1993.
Authorities gave little credence to witnesses who reported hearing “blood curdling screams” on Dec. 12, 1996, a day when Nolley was at work and had an alibi, according to the court brief.
Witnesses also reported seeing a tall white man wearing a black cowboy hat leaving the area of McLane’s apartment on Dec. 12.
Key testimony refuted
Nolley was arrested in 1997 and became acquainted with O’Brien while in the Tarrant County jail. O’Brien told authorities that he had developed a relationship with Nolley while they both worked in jail library in the fall of 1997.
O’Brien told investigators with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office that Nolley confessed to him that he killed McLane after she resisted his attempts to rob her and because he saw her blood on his shoes.
This snitch gave false testimony that ruined this man’s life for years.
Cory Session, director, Innocence Project of Texas
Police never recovered any bloody shoes nor did they recover any items stolen from McLane’s apartment. Money was found inside the victim’s purse and no property was found missing.
O’Brien, who faced 25 to 99 years for stealing farm and welding equipment, later reached a plea agreement that resulted in a sentence of 10 years deferred adjudication probation.
Cory Session, whose brother, Tim Cole died in prison but was later exonerated for a sexual assault he did not commit, said O’Brien was a “professional snitch.”
Session said the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission will take up the issue of jailhouse snitches when it meets in June.
“If there had never been a jailhouse snitch on this man, he would have been able to see his children grow up,” Cole said. “This snitch gave false testimony that ruined this man’s life for years.”
O’Brien was later convicted for another crime and is now in prison.
“I feel blessed,” Nolley said.
This article includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.