A man who spent almost 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit was declared innocent in a Tarrant County courtroom on Wednesday.
John Nolley, now 44, was wrongfully convicted in 1998 of murdering a Bedford woman based largely on the testimony of a lying jailhouse informant. Two decades later, his good name has been restored, and his case helped spur changes in Texas law.
During a short hearing in a downtown Fort Worth courtroom, Judge Louis Sturns apologized to Nolley on behalf of the courts, the county and the state of Texas, and signed the paperwork that legally restores Nolley’s innocence.
“I realize that this apology cannot take back the 21 years of your life,” he said. “But to the extent that words can express our sorrow and regret, I wish to apologize to you.”
Nolley beamed after the hearing, kissed his baby son and was thronged by family members, friends and a handful of fellow exonerees who’d come to attend the hearing.
“The thing that got me through was just staying strong and believing this day would come,” he said later. “And eventually it came and I was ready to greet it.”
Making up for lost time
Nolley was freed in 2016, but for the last two years he’s remained a felon officially guilty of the crime. It took that long for his case to wind its way up to the state Court of Criminal Appeals and back, before Wednesday’s declaration of his actual innocence.
Since returning home, Nolley has gotten married, had a baby who is now 10 months old, and started his own business.
A deeply spiritual man, Nolley said his faith in God gave him the strength to carry on fighting for his freedom and to clear his name, and said he harbored no animosity toward anyone who was part of locking him away for so many years – including the lying jailhouse snitch who falsely testified that Nolley had confessed to the murder.
“I don’t have any resentment to anybody at this point. Of course, at the beginning [I did],” he said. “But as you grow and you mature you understand that the faults that you have, other people have too, and they’re just human errors.”
Nolley had an infant son when he went to prison. When he came out, he was a grandfather.
Nolley’s oldest son, Tavan Seaton, was just 3 years old when his father was arrested. Now 24, he says he had a lot of anger growing up, knowing that his father was innocent, and because he was growing up without a father to teach him all the things that fathers are supposed to do. Housed in a prison far from their home, getting to see his dad was a challenge, Seaton said, and when he did see him, it was through the glass of a prison visitation room.
“He missed so much: Family gatherings, football games, basketball games that he was never there for. Prom, the birth of his grandkids. And it hurt,” Seaton said. “But being able to be here for this day, it eases some of the pain.”
Sending the wrong man to prison
On December 14, 1996, Nolley’s friend Sharon McLane was discovered dead in her Bedford apartment. She’d been stabbed 57 times and hadn’t been heard from in several days. Nolley was charged for the murder. The evidence was circumstantial.
In 1998, Nolley was convicted of the brutal murder, based largely on testimony from a jailhouse informant who lied on the stand, who swore under oath that Nolley had confessed to the crime. That man, John O’Brien, was facing decades in prison for stealing farm equipment, but got out with months of probation after his testimony put Nolley away. On the stand, he told the jury wasn’t being offered a deal to testify.
Though none of O’Brien’s testimony was true, it was enough to send Nolley to prison.
“I remember just waking up some days just in a daze, not being able to believe that I was in prison,” Nolley said.
In prison, after his family had expended all of their resources on lawyers, he worked on his own to clear his name. After the better part of a decade, the Innocence Project agreed to take his case, and worked for 12 more years before he was finally declared innocent.
Effecting change in the system
In 2015, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson set up the county’s first conviction integrity unit to re-examine cases of possible wrongful conviction. And immediately, that unit began working with the Innocence Project as well as the Bedford Police Department to uncover the evidence that eventually freed Nolley.
“If you don’t have the right guy, then you’ve got a perfect crime, and we don’t want that,” Dawn Boswell, who heads the conviction integrity unit, told KERA last year.
Nina Morrison, Nolley’s lawyer from the Innocence Project, says what’s remarkable about this case is the effort that Boswell in the district attorney’s office and the Bedford police department expended. The very same organizations that put Nolley behind bars two decades before spent the last three years working to clear his name.
“A wrongful conviction is the criminal justice system’s equivalent of a plane crash: It’s our worst nightmare,” Morrison said. “Sometimes, like plane crashes, someone’s at fault. Sometimes it’s human error. But either way, we have a responsibility to make sure that no one else gets hurt, that this never happens again.”
Too often, Morrison says, an exoneration like Nolley’s doesn’t lead to changes that improve the integrity of the justice system. This time, she says, is different.
Because of this case, the district attorney’s office now tracks and limits the use of informants. It was the second prosecutor’s office in the country to institute policies like it. Last year, state lawmakers included similar provisions in a Texas law designed to prevent people from going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
In 2005, the Center on Wrongful Convictions reported that false testimony from jailhouse informants was the single biggest reason for death row exonerations.
Under Texas law, Nolley is entitled to $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated. Since 1991, Texas has paid more than $116 million to exonorees, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
The case of Sharon McLane’s murder has been re-opened, two decades later. Her death is once again, officially, unsolved. District Attorney Sharen Wilson didn’t comment on the open investigation.