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Michael Hanline

Other California DNA Exonerations
On November 12, 1978, the body of 37-year-old J.T. McGarry (also known as Larry Michael Mathers) was found fatally shot in a ravine in Ventura County, California.

Two weeks later, a confidential informant, who was also McGarry’s former employer, called Ventura County Sheriff’s Police. He said that McGarry’s former girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, claimed that she was in a love triangle with McGarry and 31-year-old Michael Hanline.

The informant said that Bischoff told him that Hanline and a friend named Bo Messer abducted McGarry from his home in a stolen silver van, taped his hands with surgical tape and then shot him. According to the informant, Bischoff also said that when McGarry was shot, blood spattered all over the van and on Hanline’s clothes.

The police contacted and interviewed Bischoff after the informant identified her, and her statement was different than what the informant said she had told him.

Hanline and Messer were arrested in December 1978 and charged with first-degree murder and burglary. The charges against Messer were later dismissed for lack of evidence.

A defense attorney named Bruce Robertson, who had previously represented McGarry and was at McGarry’s house the night he disappeared, represented Bischoff and negotiated a deal for her to obtain immunity from prosecution.

In January 1979, Robertson and the prosecutor persuaded the trial judge to meet with them privately. Hanline’s defense attorney was excluded because the prosecutor was concerned about the safety of the informant. The prosecutor told the judge that the information in the police reports regarding the interviews with the informant and with Bischoff “lends itself to impeachment of Bischoff…and Bischoff is the state’s only star witness. I mean she is the case. So this could very well be impeachment of Bischoff, because the facts are different in some respects from what she’ll testify.”

Although the trial judge agreed that the reports were “extremely relevant” to the defense, particularly because Bischoff’s description was so detailed it suggested she was present when McGarry was killed, the judge granted the prosecution’s request that the reports not be disclosed to Hanline’s defense attorney. The reports and a transcript of the meetings with the judge were sealed after the judge ordered that a “sanitized” version of the information be turned over. The cleansed version was based on a police interview with Bischoff only and the reference to the informant’s statement was not disclosed.

Hanline went to trial in Ventura County Superior Court in June 1980. The prosecution’s case centered on Bischoff’s testimony. She told the jury that Hanline had claimed that there was a murder contract out on McGarry, that he had threatened to kill McGarry because McGarry owed Bischoff money, and that she found some of McGarry’s possessions—including his wallet, credit card, briefcase, jar of coins and metal cash box—in a van that Hanline was driving.

Bischoff also testified that on the night of November 10, 1978—the last night that McGarry was seen alive—Hanline and Messer went out early in the evening. Hanline was carrying a .38-caliber pistol, she said, and when he came back, he was dirty and sweaty and had vomit on his clothes.

Bischoff admitted that she had smoked angel dust and ingested cocaine that night, and drank beer.

Hanline testified in his own defense and denied any involvement in McGarry’s disappearance and death. Hanline said that on that evening, he spent two or three hours in the garage working on motorcycles with Messer. Then he and Messer went to get beer around 10:30 or 11 p.m. and on his way back from the store, he vomited on himself. He said he was troubled by frequent nausea which was the residual effect of a motorcycle accident and subsequent surgery. He said he cleaned up and stayed in the rest of the night.

Hanline testified that on the following day, November 11, 1978, he, Bischoff and Messer drove to the home where Bischoff had been living with McGarry to pick up some of her belongings. Hanline said McGarry and Messer loaded the van and that he did not carry anything out of the house. It was not until later that Hanline saw the cashbox and Bischoff showed him McGarry’s wallet and credit card. Bischoff told him that since McGarry owed her money, they could use the card. Hanline said he did not know that McGarry was missing at the time they were at the house. Hanline testified that about two weeks later Bischoff left him, leaving behind the cash box and the briefcase that were in the van. Police recovered those items when Hanline was arrested.

On September 24, 1980, the jury convicted Hanline of first-degree murder and burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Hanline’s appeals as well as a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus were rejected by the Second District California Court of Appeal. The California Supreme Court denied petitions for review.

In 1999, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law began investigating Hanline’s case. Ultimately a federal petition for a writ of habeas was filed. In 2010, a federal magistrate recommended that Hanline’s conviction be vacated and a new trial held because of the failure to disclose the inconsistent statements from Bischoff and the confidential informant. A federal judge, however, refused to accept the recommendation and denied Hanline’s petition.

In the meantime, DNA tests were performed on some of the evidence in the case—the prosecution declined to be specific as to what was tested. Neither Hanline’s nor Messer’s DNA was found, but a DNA profile of an unidentified individual was identified.

In November 2014, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office requested that Hanline’s conviction be vacated because of the “flaws” in Hanline’s trial. On November 24, 2014, Hanline was released on bond after spending 36 years in prison. On April 22, 2015, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In November 2015, Hanline filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. The lawsuit was settled for $10 million. He also filed a claim for compensation from the state of California.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/23/2015
Last Updated: 5/20/2019
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1978
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*