IPMN has worked to free six men who were in prison for crimes they did not commit. These men spent a combined 84 years behind bars due to wrongful convictions. The life changing stories of Billy Glaze, Michael Hansen, Richard LaFuente, Koua Fong Lee, Terry Olson, and Sherman Townsend can be found below.
27 years in prison
“Billy spent almost 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. That tragedy has been compounded by his death. We’re heartbroken, particularly as we were confident that Billy would have been exonerated in 2016, and released from prison as a free man…Billy and his family deserve that one small solace; if we can find a legal means to do so, we will.” - Ed Magarian, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney and one of Glaze’s lawyers. Click here to read Billy’s full story.
6 years in prison
Michael Hansen was wrongfully convicted of murdering his 3 month old daughter, Avryonna Hansen. He served 6 years of a 14.5-year sentence before being exonerated by Innocence Project of Minnesota. On the morning of Avryonna’s death, Mr. Hansen called 911 because she would not wake-up. Paramedics were unable to revive her. Because Avryonna’s death was unexpected, an autopsy was performed. The medical examiner testified that Avryonna died from a significant skull fracture that he believed was caused by an intentional blow to her head while she was in her father’s care. The medical examiner testified that the skull fracture itself caused the baby’s death even though he did not find meaningful swelling, bleeding, or brain injury during the autopsy. He dismissed the idea that the fracture could have been caused by Avryonna’s well-documented fall from a shopping cart 6 days before her death.
The Innocence Project of Minnesota re-opened the case and presented the testimony from a team of experts at a post-conviction hearing. Many of the experts worked on the case at no charge, and half of them spent their careers regularly testifying on behalf of the prosecution. According to the medical experts, the physical evidence demonstrated that Avryonna’s skull fracture was healing and occurred at least three days before she died. From this, the experts surmised that Avryonna’s skull fracture came from her shopping cart fall. Further, the experts testified that a skull fracture alone does not cause death but rather must be accompanied by underlying bleeding or brain injury – neither of which were present. They explained that Avryonna likely passed away from accidental suffocation in her sleep.
The district court judge held that portions of the State’s medical examiner’s trial testimony were not credible and that other portions were false or incorrect. Mr. Hansen was exonerated when the State formally dismissed the charges against him.
28 years in prison
In 1986, Richard LaFuente was convicted of the murder of Edward Peltier. The prosecution alleged that Mr. LaFuente, along with ten other men, participated in a mob beating of Mr. Peltier, and then ran Mr. Peltier over with a car.
Initially, when Edward Peltier’s body was discovered on the side of a road on August 28, 1983, the police treated his death as a hit and run incident. However, in 1985 law enforcement began collecting statements from witnesses who alleged that Peltier had been beaten and murdered. In January 1986, police asked Mr. LaFuente and his brother-in-law, Mr. Perez, to come to the sheriff’s office. They did so willingly and were arrested on charges of murder. Richard LaFuente was to spend the next 28 years in prison.
Evidence presented at trial contradicted the government’s theory of mob violence. Mr. Peltier’s body showed no signs of an extensive beating. Several of the government’s witnesses recanted their testimony before trial or on the stand. The owner of the house where the party allegedly occurred testified that there was no party that night and she actually refused to allow alcohol at her home, a fact attested by many in the community. All the defendants presented alibis for that night and no connection was ever made between Mr. LaFuente and Mr. Peltier. All defendants claimed innocence and were tried together in a single trial, and despite the fact that they did not all know or like each other, none of the defendants took a deal or offered any incriminating evidence against each other.
Despite the weaknesses of the government’s case, all of the defendants were convicted. Soon after trial the convictions of the nine local men were overturned, only Mr. LaFuente and Mr. Perez, the outsiders, remained in prison. Although Mr. LaFuente was later granted two opportunities for a new trial due to trial court errors and prosecutorial misconduct, these rulings, which would have offered Mr. LaFuente a fair opportunity to prove his innocence, were overturned.
At a hearing in 1994, witnesses for the government came forward, including the victim’s own brother, admitting that they gave false testimony induced by police investigators’ coercive threats against them and their families and threats of jail time if they did not tell the government’s version of events. After hearing the multiple recantations of its witnesses, the government offered Mr. LaFuente and Mr. Perez a deal – if they admitted their guilt, they could go free. Neither would accept the deal because they were innocent.
Over the years, Mr. LaFuente was repeatedly denied parole because he refused to show remorse for something he did not do. Mr. Peltier’s family believes Mr. LaFuente is innocent. They have repeatedly travelled to Mr. LaFuente’s parole hearings and given statements to the parole board on his behalf, asking that he be freed. However, year after year, Mr. LaFuente was repeatedly denied parole for his failure to show remorse even though he had a perfect prison record and strong community and family support for his release.
The Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) represented Mr. LaFuente and filed two clemency petitions on his behalf as well as three appeals of his denials of parole. In 2013, after yet another parole hearing where Mr. Peltier’s sister testified on Mr. LaFuente’s behalf, he was once again denied parole. IPMN filed another appeal of that denial. However, this time the decision to deny parole was reversed and after 28 years in prison, Mr. LaFuente was released from prison.
Koua Fong Lee
3 years in prison
Koua Fong Lee was wrongfully convicted of vehicular homicide in 2007 after his 1996 Toyota Camry accelerated uncontrollably at the end of a St. Paul freeway exit ramp and crashed into two vehicles, ultimately killing a man and two children and injuring two others.
Lee, who always maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Two years later, Toyota revealed that some of its cars were experiencing acceleration issues. The Innocence Project of Minnesota, and attorneys Brent Schafer and Bob Hilliard uncovered strong evidence that—like other Toyota vehicles—Lee’s car malfunctioned, causing it to accelerate and crash.
Students working on the case through the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School interviewed numerous other Toyota drivers who had experienced the same problems with their own Toyotas and drafted and collected over 50 affidavits from them. After serving almost three years in prison, Mr. Lee was released and exonerated on August 5, 2010, when the judge ordered a new trial and the prosecution decided to drop the charges.
10 years in prison
Mr. Olson was convicted in 2007 for the 1979 death Jeff Hammill. Mr. Hammill had been found dead by the side of the road just outside of Buffalo, MN. At the time of his death, law enforcement investigated the case as a possible roadside accident or homicide, and ultimately the case was closed with no charges being filed. One of the lead investigators on the case, retired Chief Deputy Sheriff Jim Powers, believes to this day that the case was an accident, and Mr. Hammill was likely accidentally hit by a piece of farm equipment being moved in the night when the roads are less crowded. Now retired, Chief Deputy Powers contacted the Innocence Project of Minnesota early on in its representation of Mr. Olson, and continues to be one of Mr. Olson’s strongest advocates because of his strong belief that no crime ever occurred.
In 2003, police reopened the case by interrogating and ultimately securing a confession from a mentally ill man, Dale Todd. They told him that in 1979 they had taken and kept evidence from his car that contained biological evidence that proved he was involved in a murder. This was not true. The police had no such evidence but Todd was so frightened and unstable that he confessed and implicated Mr. Olson and another man, Ron Michaels. Mr. Michaels was brought to trial first in 2006. At Ron Michaels’ trial, Mr. Todd admitted that he had been coerced to falsely confess and falsely implicate Mr. Michaels and Mr. Olson. Mr. Michaels was acquitted. Several months later when Mr. Olson was brought to trial, Mr. Todd was coerced into reverting to the story he told police in 2003. Mr. Olson was convicted and sent to prison for 17 years. Days later, Mr. Todd wrote a letter to the trial judge explaining he had lied at Olson’s trial. No hearing was held on Mr. Todd’s recantation.
In 2012, Mr. Todd contacted the Innocence Project of Minnesota. For the first time in many years, his mental health issues were now stabilized with medication. He wanted to clear his conscience and again tell the truth – as he had at Mr. Michael’s trial – that none of them were involved in the death of Mr. Hammill and that the police had frightened him into making a false confession. He provided a detailed affidavit explaining the circumstances of his false coerced confession. In addition, at a hearing on Mr. Olson’s request for a new trial, Mr. Olson’s public defenders admitted that they provided him with poor representation in several key ways. One of the attorneys acknowledged that there were budget cuts and staffing problems in his office, that his caseload was unusually large, and he missed several important issues in Mr. Olson’s case.
Although the judge ultimately denied Mr. Olson’s request for a new trial, the Wright County Attorney’s Office realized the unfairness of Mr. Olson’s situation. Their office agreed that in the interest of justice Mr. Olson should be immediately released from prison. Mr. Olson has always declared his innocence and the many attorneys and law students who have worked on his case for years also believe he is innocent. However after more than 10 years of incarceration Mr. Olson is very excited to spend time with his family and to have his freedom back.
10 years in prison
Sherman Townsend was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for over 10 years after being falsely identified by the true perpetrator of a 1997 home invasion. Townsend always maintained his innocence and reached out to anyone who would listen.
Townsend brought his plight to the attention of the Minnesota Innocence Project in 2002 as soon as we began accepting cases. His case was worked on by a number of law students at the Hamline University School of Law and the University of Minnesota Law School, as well as professors and attorneys who believed in Sherman's innocence. This is how the search for the true perpetrator of the crime began.
The search ended when David Jones, the neighbor of the victim, came forward and confessed to the crime. He gave a chilling and detailed description of the events that occurred that night. Jones had been intoxicated and was attempting to sexually assault his female neighbor when he discovered her boyfriend in her room, causing him to flee the scene. In an attempt to avoid going to prison himself in case the victim recognized him, he went back to his neighbor’s home
after the crime and acted as a concerned neighbor when the police arrived on the scene. Jones claimed that he saw a man fleeing the scene and falsely identified Townsend after Townsend was picked up by the police and brought to the scene.
Despite numerous inconsistencies and a lack of any physical evidence tying Townsend to the scene, Jones testified at trial that Townsend was the man that ran into him that night, and Townsend was subsequently convicted. Years later, Jones went to prison himself for rape. While in prison, he suffered a true crisis on conscience when he realized Townsend was still in prison for the crime Jones had committed.
After Jones came forward with a map and affidavits detailing his guilt, and a lengthy hearing where Jones admitted under oath his guilt in the offense, the prosecutor agreed to release Mr. Townsend from prison immediately. After serving over 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Mr. Townsend remains upbeat stating, “I don’t think they took my life away; I think I go from this day forward.”