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John Nolley

Other Texas CIU Exonerations
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On Wednesday, December 11, 1996, 32-year-old Sharon McLane ended her shift at Advantage Rent-A-Car and went to her home in Bedford, Texas, about 15 miles northeast of Forth Worth. On Saturday, December 14, when she failed to show up for her 7 a.m. shift, a friend, acting on a request from McLane’s supervisor, went to her apartment. The door was unlocked. McLane’s partially nude body was face down in the kitchen in a pool of blood. Two kitchen knives were under her body. A third was near her feet. There was no sign of a robbery—McLane’s purse was untouched on a chair in the living room.

A bloodstained memo paper found under her body contained a partial palm print imprinted in the blood. A bloodstained sock that may have been used to wipe up blood was found in the living room; its mate, which contained no blood, was found in the hamper in the bathroom.

A pathologist conducted an autopsy and found 57 wounds—37 puncture wounds and 20 slash wounds. McLane’s trachea and spinal cord were cut. A toxicology report was negative for the presence of any drugs. A precise time of death was not determined, although the pathologist estimated she was killed prior to 10 a.m. on Friday, December 13.

Police canvassed the apartment complex and two neighbors, Charles and Sandra Hammond, reported hearing “blood-curdling screams” of an adult woman a little after 3 p.m. on Thursday, December 12. Charles Hammond said that less than a half hour later, he saw a tall white man wearing a black cowboy hat walk from the breezeway adjacent to McLane’s apartment. Hammond said he had not seen the man before.

Ron Herrin, a maintenance worker in the apartment complex, reported seeing a suspicious white man in a black cowboy hat coming from the direction of McLane’s apartment at about the same time. The man, Herrin said, seemed “nervous and trying to avoid me.”

Police attempted to create a timeline beginning with McLane’s departure from her job on December 13. They learned that at 6 p.m., after going for a jog, she spoke to a former co-worker, Brad Smith, with whom she was romantically involved. Smith told police McLane told him she was very tired and was staying in for the night. At 9 p.m., McLane spoke to the grandmother of her late husband.

Police also found two messages on McLane’s answering machine from Cajleb McNair, who said he was returning a pager notification. Police determined that McNair had been paged by 22-year-old John Nolley, a friend of McNair.

Nolley and his live-in girlfriend, Amy Degeer, were friends of McLane, who occasionally watched Dallas Cowboys football games at Nolley and Degeer’s apartment. McLane and her daughter had joined them for Thanksgiving dinner just a few weeks earlier.

Nolley first told the police that he had not seen McLane that Wednesday night. He said he met up with a friend, Jason Vandergriff, then joined McNair at a bar for a few beers, and afterward met a friend named Mike before going home.

In a second interview, however, Nolley admitted that he saw McLane that Wednesday night. He said he brought some Keystone beer to McLane’s as well as some marijuana, which he sold her. They had smoked marijuana, he drank a beer, and he then went home. Nolley said he lied initially about being there because selling and smoking marijuana violated his probation, which he had received in 1994 for a weapons possession conviction.

Nolley said he had paged McNair to McLane’s telephone, which explained why McNair had left two messages there. Police found a Keystone beer bottle in McLane’s trashcan that had Nolley’s fingerprint on it.

Degeer, Nolley’s girlfriend, told police he arrived home from McLane’s around 11:15 p.m. She did not notice anything unusual about his appearance or demeanor.

Police determined that at about 11 p.m., prior to Nolley’s return home, McLane had a telephone conversation with another man she was dating who had moved to Salt Lake City. He asked her to check the Texas lottery numbers for him. He would later say McLane was in good spirits and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, in August 1997, Nolley was arrested and charged with McLane’s murder.

He went to trial in Tarrant County Criminal District Court in May 1998. The prosecution’s case against him relied almost solely on the testimony of three witnesses.

John O’Brien testified that he was in custody in the Tarrant County Jail at the same time Nolley was there. O’Brien testified that in October 1997, he was in the jail law library and during a conversation, Nolley admitted committing the crime.

“He told me that he went to this lady’s house with the intentions to rob her and during the robbery, that the lady resisted. He claimed there was blood on his shoes and that she put up a fight and that’s why he had to kill her.”

Nolley’s defense lawyer challenged the testimony, noting that there was no evidence of a robbery—McLane’s purse and money were still in the apartment. He further noted the improbability of Nolley trying to rob a good friend whom others, including his girlfriend, knew he was going to visit that night.

O’Brien, who had nine prior felony convictions and numerous probation revocations, was in the jail on charges of orchestrating, with several others, the theft of more than $75,000 worth of trucks, trailers, and farm equipment. One month after O’Brien said Nolley confessed to him, O’Brien agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to probation.

O’Brien testified that his deal was not related to his testimony. He said he had been promised nothing by the prosecution and that his deal was already set in stone before he told anyone about his conversation with Nolley. O’Brien also testified that he had never been an informant for the prosecution in any other case—indeed, that he had not even offered to act as an informant before.

Nolley’s friend and former high school classmate, Jason Vandergriff, and Vandergriff’s girlfriend, Delinda Garza, also testified about statements they said Nolley made.

Vandergriff said that on December 12, 1996—the day after Nolley visited McLane—he had a telephone conversation with Nolley, during which Nolley said he had “R.I.P.ed a motherfucker.” Vandergriff said he asked Nolley if had beaten someone up and Nolley replied, “No, I stabbed them.”

Vandergriff said that Nolley further explained that he “thought it was through. And they were getting back up and he did it to finish them off again.” Vandergriff added that Nolley said he had “some blood on him and wiped what he could off.”

During cross-examination, Vandergriff claimed he never heard anyone use the term “motherfucker” to refer to a woman. He admitted that when he had recounted the conversation to his girlfriend, he said that Nolley had “R.I.P.ed a guy.” Vandergriff admitted that he thought at the time that Nolley was exaggerating and “telling me something that maybe wasn’t true.”

In fact, Vandergriff admitted, when he learned that McLane was dead, he asked Nolley whether he had been referring to her in the conversation and Nolley said he was referring to someone else. Vandergriff and Garza also testified that they were at Nolley’s home in February 1997 while the investigation was still ongoing. Vandergriff said police asked him to tell Nolley that “forensics could find pieces of thread from this and that, you know…and that the next time they see him, they was going to put cuffs on him.” Garza and Vandergriff said Nolley retrieved two pairs of shoes from his closet—one belonging to Nolley and the other to Nolley’s girlfriend—and said he was going to take them to a friend’s home.

Garza and Vandergriff said they saw what appeared to a stain on Nolley’s shoes, although both conceded they were high on marijuana at the time. Vandergriff said it appeared to be maroon in color. Garza testified similarly but gave conflicting versions of the location of the stain.

The defense noted that no such shoes—or any bloodstained item at all— were ever recovered from Nolley or from the friend’s home. Vandergriff admitted that in the 10 months leading up to Nolley’s trial, he had been facing a domestic assault charge. One week prior to Nolley’s trial, he was sentenced to probation on the charge.

The prosecutor, during his final questioning of Vandergriff, asked if he had ever asked Nolley directly if he had killed McLane. Vandergriff said that he had done so and that Nolley replied, “Jay, look at me. I did not do this. I didn’t do this.”

The defense called the apartment complex residents who heard the screams on Thursday, December 12—the day after Nolley visited McLane. The defense presented evidence that Nolley was at work at Avian Kingdom, a pet supply store, at the time the residents heard the screaming.

The defense noted that the toxicology report from the autopsy showed that there were no marijuana metabolites in McLane’s system. A forensic pathologist testified that if McLane had smoked marijuana with 12 to 13 hours prior to her death, the metabolites would be present. The defense noted that McLane was a meticulous housekeeper and yet two hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes and an overturned ashtray were found on a coffee table in the living room.

The defense argued that evidence showed that McLane was killed more than 12 to 13 hours after Nolley left the apartment. The defense contended she had been alive at least until the morning of December 12 to have fully metabolized the marijuana. Based on her failure to come to her office to pick up her paycheck on Friday as she did routinely every payday, the defense contended killed sometime that day before she could clean up the overturned ashtray.

DNA testing, which was still in rudimentary form in 1996, was performed on bloodstains, a black briefcase, a bloodstained sock, and various swabbings of blood found at the scene. Nothing was discovered that linked Nolley to the crime.

Bill Bailey, a fingerprint analyst for the prosecution, testified that he had examined the bloodstained memo paper found under McLane’s body. He said he attempted to compare a partial palm print left in blood on one side of the paper to both McLane and Nolley. He said the comparison had been conducted “with negative results.” He testified that he meant he was unable to draw any conclusions—either including or excluding Nolley.

A trace analyst for the prosecution testified that “brownish blonde” or “brown” hairs found at the scene were Caucasian and did not come from McLane or Nolley. Two of the hairs were found on McLane’s shirt and two were found on the toilet bowl in the bloodstained bathroom.

On May 26, 1998, the jury convicted Nolley of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. In 2000, Nolley requested help from the Innocence Project. In 2004, while on the Innocence Project waiting list, Nolley, acting without a lawyer, filed a request for DNA testing. In 2006, the Innocence Project began investigating the case. In 2008, it filed a supplemental motion for DNA testing, which had become more sophisticated and discerning in the decade since the trial. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office agreed that the testing should go forward and for the next several years worked cooperatively with the Innocence Project to re-investigate the case. In 2015, District Attorney Sharon Wilson formed a conviction integrity unit, which began investigating the case. In addition to DNA testing, digital fingerprint analysis was conducted.

The testing showed that one of the knives recovered next to McLane’s body contained blood from a male that was not Nolley. In addition, McLane and Nolley were excluded as the source of the bloody partial palm print on the memo.

The prosecution also discovered a trove of documents and records that had not been disclosed to Nolley’s trial defense lawyer. The records showed that O’Brien had lied when he said he had never been an informant before—he had done so in another murder case. Moreover, the trial prosecutor, James Cook, knew of O’Brien’s involvement and knew about favorable treatment conferred on O’Brien for his testimony.

In a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of Nolley, the Innocence Project declared that the prosecution, at Nolley’s trial, “stood mute when O’Brien falsely swore to Mr. Nolley’s jury that no time had he so much as attempted ‘to work any deal’ in exchange for serving as a State informant.”

Also disclosed was Vandergriff’s grand jury testimony, which showed that his trial testimony was false. Vandergriff told the grand jury that he believed Nolley’s statement that he “R.I.P.ed” someone was a made-up story to impress him. Vandergriff also said that he never knew Nolley to be a violent person and that he was always “real protective of women.”

Vandergriff also told the grand jury that he asked Nolley if McLane was the person he was referring to during the R.I.P conversation and Nolley said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not it. That’s not it.” Vandergriff told the grand jury he believed Nolley was telling him the truth.

Nowhere in the grand jury testimony did Vandergriff say anything about Nolley having stabbed anyone—as he would later testify at Nolley’s trial. During the reinvestigation by the conviction integrity unit, a document was uncovered showing that a prosecutor who was in charge of the grand jury noted that Vandergriff and Garza had changed their initial accounts to say that Nolley admitted cutting someone. “Why change story at that time?” the prosecutor wrote in his notes.

In fact, between the time Vandergriff testified before the grand jury and the prosecutor wrote the note, Vandergriff had been arrested on the domestic assault charge, which resulted in probation a week before Nolley’s trial.

The conviction integrity unit also discovered a note in the prosecution file relating to the bloody partial palm print. The grand jury prosecutor had written, “How can we indict Nolley if blood palm is not his?” The word “not” was underlined twice.

The note, the Innocence Project contended, showed that the trial testimony of the fingerprint analysis that the print was not suitable for comparison was false—that in fact, Nolley had been eliminated as the source of the print.

In addition, the conviction integrity unit reinvestigation turned up evidence that shortly before her death, McLane had expressed concern about her own safety and that she was “scared” of someone.

In May 2016, Judge Louis Sturns, at the request of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project, recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Nolley’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus be granted and his conviction be vacated. Nolley was released immediately on bond.

The agreed findings said, “The undisclosed documents at issue, when considered cumulatively, constitute material evidence that clearly undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial. The State concurs with (Nolley’s) contention that there is at least a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony of (several) witnesses affected his conviction.”

In May 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated Nolley’s conviction. On October 3, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

Judge Sturns apologized to Nolley for the 19 years he spent in prison and the two years he spent waiting for the case to be dismissed after he was released.

“I have signed the order dismissing your case,” Sturns said. “I want to apologize for what happened to you. I realize that cannot take back 21 years, but to the extent that words can express our sorrow, I apologize for what happened.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/5/2018
State:Texas
County:Tarrant
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*