Every single morning for 36 years, when I got up and I walked outside I was mad. I was mad and, you know, if anything happened I was ready. Since I’ve been out I have not had one cross thought. I mean if somebody cuts me off I just smile. — Michael Hanline
On November 24th, Michael Hanline was exonerated in a murder case after serving 36 years in prison. This makes him the longest serving wrongfully incarcerated prisoner in California’s history. His freedom was gained thanks to the work of attorneys at the California Innocence Project, an organization at Cal Western Law dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. They found that some of the witness testimony in Hanline’s case wasn’t credible and found that DNA from the crime scene did not match Hanline’s.
The California Innocence Project gets around two thousand requests a year for pro-bono representation, and they say they only take up a case when they know the person is “factually innocent” and the justice system has failed. They’re celebrating Hanline’s release, but now The California Innocence Project is now asking Governor Jerry Brown for clemency for 11 other prisoners.
KCRW spoke to Hanline at a recent vigil for the remaining California 11.
KCRW: Are you looking forward to Christmas?
MICHAEL HANLINE: Oh absolutely, absolutely I missed 36 of them. I’m really looking forward to this one. You know my wife, she’s been there steadfast for 36 years. We had a first Thanksgiving which was which was just insane. There wasn’t a lot of people or nothing. But we just relished the idea of being able to touch each other without having somebody there saying “no.” In the visitors’ room they have tables that are about a foot tall and if you want to hold hands you have to lean forward put your arms on the table, you know, and this is no way to do that. So it’s a it’s a joy just to be able to have Christmas dinner and get a Christmas tree.
Every day is just a blessing, because three weeks a go, where I was at, there was none of this, it was pretty messed up. That’s why we’ve got to bring attention to this, because there’s a lot of people who shouldn’t be in there. And I did 36 years and I mean that’s a long time.
KCRW: What was Christmas in prison like?
MH: Nothing. Just another day. You just do whatever you can do. A lot of guys get remorseful or mad something. I just go to the yard, walked around in the yard and then back in the house and I write my wife. That’s for every holiday. There is no such thing as holidays in there.
MH: Absolutely. You know we had the biggest motorcycle shop in southern California when I got busted… I would have had the biggest motorcycle shop and retired a few years ago. I tell you that because we were doing good down there.
When I got busted I was selling motorcycles for $2500, $4000. Now you can spend $100,000 on a motorcycle. It’s just fantastic. You know it’s just the whole world. Go to Starbucks and you can pay what, $5, $10 for a cup of coffee? I was mad when it went from a nickel to a dime, you know.
KCRW: Did you wonder about a sense of justice when you knew that you were innocent and that you were behind these bars? You couldn’t really hold your wife. Did you think about what kind of world this is that someone like you would spend this much time?
MH: Truthfully, I figured when I got arrested that I would spend a year, maybe two, before they got it all straightened around and then they said oh man we’re sorry and me go. It took 36 years and not without these guys with these gals [at The California Innocence Project].
KCRW: Were there low moments?
MH: There were many, many, many, many low moments. I mean after, you know, five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, you know. I was getting to think it would never happen and I was wondering, because I always believe that everything happens for a reason. And I’m still trying to put my finger on why this happened to me.
KCRW: How did you find hope? Did you find hope when you got connected with the California Innocence Project? Did your wife give you hope?
MH: I never thought what happened to me could happen in America. You know, I mean, believe me I love my country, but how this could happen and the way it happened is just ludicrous. I mean there’s no way it should ever happen to anybody. But you know it happens all the time. I mean I’ve seen a lot of guys in there that they don’t need to be in there and I’ve seen guys in there, you know the mental kids that have a problem and they don’t care. They took away the funding for mental health and they just got to walk in the yard now. That’s crazy.
KCRW: So then again remind me why you’re here because you have this experience…
MH: I want to give hope to the other California Eleven and let them know that it can happen. It might take a while but it can happen. It’s going to happen for a lot. It’s got to because you know this system’s got to change.
KCRW: Remind me again now like what you look forward to doing now that you know, it’s only been three weeks I’m sure it’s very surreal.
MH: I look forward to getting up every morning and puttering around the yard, going fishing and going and seeing my friends that have kids and, you know, just being part of life in general. That’s what I want. To stay away from all the dark stuff in the world. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there; I don’t need none of it. I just want to be in the light and be happy and in carry on, because I got a break, I got a real break here and I want to give back.