After 38 Years Behind Bars, Bill Macumber Joins Those Freed by the Arizona Justice Project

Bill Macumber stares over the crowd of young heads shuffling into Coors Field in Denver. He observes that people dress much more casually at baseball games than in 1974, when he began his long incarceration in Arizona.

Sun shining on his gray hair, Macumber wears a bola tie, a red cowboy shirt, and glasses on his wrinkled face. He is a lanky, cane-wielding Rip Van Winkle, awakened in society after 38 years behind bars.

While in prison in Florence and Douglas, he passionately followed the Chicago Cubs, his favorite team since he first watched them at Wrigley Field with his father in 1945. On this day, he will see the Colorado Rockies play the San Francisco Giants with Larry Hammond, a Phoenix attorney and founder of the Arizona Justice Project, the organization that battled for a decade to secure Macumber's freedom.

After his release from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Macumber moved into a small home in the Denver suburbs with his only son who still speaks to him, and where his new home team is the Rockies.

"Less than six months ago, I never thought I'd be watching a baseball game at Coors Field," the 77-year-old says, arching his 6-foot-7 frame backward over a cement pylon, staring up to the flag atop the brick stadium and its huge clock marking time.

In 1974, Macumber was a supervisor at a Honeywell factory that made computer parts. He had a home in Phoenix, a wife, and three young sons. But baseball games and dashes on dirt bikes through the desert with his children all vanished suddenly when he became a suspect in two murders committed more than a decade earlier.

In spring 1962, a man and a woman left a Scottsdale home for gas at about 8:30 p.m. After filling their tank, the engaged couple drove to a subdivision of houses for sale, where a security guard eyed them as they passed in their 1959 Chevrolet Impala.

After looking around, the couple then drove to Bell and Scottsdale roads, continuing on a dirt path and stopping 300 feet from the main road at a popular lovers' lane, perhaps to kiss and discuss their upcoming marriage and the home they longed to buy.

They were the all-American couple: both 20 years old, him with blond hair and blue eyes. That night, she wore a white-and-yellow blouse to match her white tennis shoes and yellow capri pants.

"Victim No. 2 was neatly dressed and appeared to have been shot twice in the head," a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office report noted about her later.

She collapsed only seven feet from her love — who'd also been shot in the head — staring up at the night sky, the class ring she'd been given still secure on her index finger.

Three months later, authorities found a witness who spoke of hidden drugs and a crazed man. But that led nowhere. The case went cold for 12 years — until after Bill Macumber's embittered wife got a job at the Sheriff's Office.

Arizona Justice Project lawyers use the term "cracks" to describe what many clients have fallen into. In the past three years, the Justice Project has freed 10 people in the state who are innocent, are thought to be innocent but accepted plea deals, or have suffered an injustice from the legal system.

Nearly every horizontal surface in the project's office at 2120 North Central Avenue is covered with papers, piled in stacks measured in inches, and rows of cardboard legal boxes with the clients' names scribbled on the sides.

In one conference room rests a rusted door from an old Chevy Impala. It's the same model from which authorities claimed they lifted Bill Macumber's prints. Despite having successfully finished his case, it seems wrong to project workers to remove the Macumber boxes.

"We've had the case for so long that we've sort of got a sentimental attachment to the stuff," says staff attorney Andrew Hacker.

At a wood conference table in the back of the office, a new crop of 12 law students leans forward, chins on hands, a few taking notes. The students soon will start scouring records and digging into case histories, but this is orientation day. Katie Puzauskas, another project attorney, sits at the head of the table, ready to break in the recruits.

Puzauskas discovered the Justice Project in 2008 while studying law at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She knew about the famed Innocence Project in New York, the model for nearly all such organizations, but she never dreamed that Arizona would have something similar. She learned that what makes the Arizona version unique is that most innocence projects accept cases only when DNA can exonerate prisoners, and most take only clients who purport to have been be wrongly convicted, who can prove actual innocence.

"But," Puzauskas says to the students, "the Arizona project isn't limited to actual innocence claims. We also look at cases where we believe there has been a fundamental miscarriage of justice.

"Just to give you an example, we had a guy apply for our help in 2008 who'd sold $20 worth of crack cocaine — one rock — to undercover police officers in South Phoenix in 1989. He was 26 at the time. He got 50 years. Five zero!"

When Larry Hammond founded the Justice Project in January 1998, it operated out of his Phoenix law office. In that first year, letters flowed in from prisoners around the state, and Hammond, his administrative assistant, and a part-time paralegal had little time and sparse funding. He contacted attorney Bob Bartels, who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and at the time was a professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

The Justice Project paired with ASU, operating at first out of the basement of the university's law library. The school relocated three or four rows of books to open the space, described as a "glorified broom closet." Law students worked between classes, paired with a professor or a volunteer private-practice mentor.

These days, ASU law students receive credit for their work through the law school's yearlong post-conviction clinic.

The clinic trains the students, and the Justice Project receives a rotating harvest of free labor, which it couldn't operate without because funding still is scarce.

About 15 percent of the project's money comes from donations, meaning the paid staff of five depends on two grants from organizations under the U.S. Department of Justice. The first is $200,000 for cases of actual innocence without DNA; the second is $1.3 million (split with the Arizona Attorney General's Office) for cases in which DNA might overturn wrongful convictions.

Hacker, in shorts and sandals most days, works DNA and non-DNA cases. Project lawyer Lindsay Herf, with surfer-girl looks, down to her gleaming smile, works only DNA cases.

Herf's most recent victory was freeing a man imprisoned for eight years after a rape conviction. At trial, the state never bothered to test the DNA evidence that later freed her client.

Most clients begin as penned names on white envelopes stamped with "ADC." Inside are synopses of their case histories and handwritten pleas for assistance.

As the new students take a break from orientation, the Justice Project's administrative assistant, Barbara Trotter, reads 10 letters that just arrived. She'll log details of each.

The Justice Project receives about 400 such letters a year, and every correspondent is mailed a questionnaire asking for case details in an effort to determine whether the convict meets the organization's requirements for help. The prisoner must be incarcerated in Arizona, have exhausted all appeals, be unable to afford a private attorney, be ineligible for a court-appointed one, and not be on death row.

About 60 applicants make it to phase two each year, which is where law students become necessary. The students hunt for records and reports, visit inmates, compile narratives, and consult with mentors or staff attorneys about the possibility of litigation.

Of those selected, fewer than 10 cases each year move to litigation. Some are passed to private firms volunteering their time.

Above the coffee maker in the back of the office, pictures of men the Justice Project has helped free are pinned on the wall. Their photos are pasted on manila folders along with words of thanks.

"Freedom finally came. Thank God [al]mighty, I'm free at last!!" wrote Louis Harper, the man sentenced to 50 years for possession and sale of the single rock of crack cocaine.

"Everything happens for a reason, and we must be on the right side of reason!" wrote Khalil Rushdan, who served nearly 15 years for a murder that the project proved his prosecutor knew he didn't commit.

As for Macumber, he left these words: "Justice, however late, is still justice."

Tire tracks proved the suspect had parked perpendicular to the Impala and let his headlights shine in on the two young lovers.

A Maricopa County medical examiner later noted that Tim McKillop was shot nearly point-blank. Joyce Sterrenberg jumped out of the driver's-side door and tried to run toward the dirt trail leading to the road. Police found a purse that remained closed and untouched on the Impala's front seat. They gathered one live round and four .45-caliber bullet casings, all of which were "reloads" (old casings with new slugs). Officers placed these in envelopes and collected several strands of hair found in the dirt 60 feet away. They didn't collect prints at the scene. They waited until they'd towed the Impala to an MCSO garage, where they lifted 15 prints.

Only three prints could've been the suspect's: one on the hood, a thumbprint from the driver's-side door handle, and one on the chrome strip along the driver's door below the window. When deputies forwarded the prints to the FBI, investigators excluded the last set because it couldn't be determined whether the prints came from a finger or a palm.

Sheriff's investigators chased leads, but nothing developed. Until they heard about Linda Primrose.

At the time, Primrose was an 18-year-old high school dropout and chronic drug abuser. She slept on a cot in a dormitory at the Good Shepherd Home for Girls and mentioned to someone there that she'd witnessed the killings on lovers' lane. Three months after the murders, she sat down with detectives.

Primrose said she was riding around the night of the killings with three "Chicano[s]," but she was fuzzy on some details. She related to investigators that she sat in a blue car with a woman named Terry, with hair that "was kind of curly but messy," a man with short, brown hair styled "like a waterfall," and another brown-skinned guy whose name she recalled as "Ernie." Primrose recalled Ernie to be about 5-feet-8, 140 pounds with dark hair and brown eyes. But when investigators asked if he had tattoos or scars, Primrose's memory failed her. "Like I said, I was high," she told them.

She later led authorities to almost exactly where the Impala had been found. She demonstrated how Ernie had steered his car next to the couple's car, and she showed officers a fence post where she remembered drugs they'd come to recover were stashed.

Primrose said a '56 Chevy full of other friends followed Ernie's car to where he'd parked next to the Impala. When Ernie saw the couple, he got out of his vehicle, and Primrose said she heard him swearing and yelling, upset that the couple wouldn't leave so he could fetch the stash. Ernie returned to the car Primrose was in, she said, and grabbed something from beneath the front seat.

Primrose remembered the man getting shot at close range. She remembered the stringy-haired woman, Terry, jumping out of Ernie's car and, when he shot the man's fiancée, screaming frantically and ripping at her hair.

The Chevy left first, she said. Ernie returned to the blue car, hit the gas pedal, and the its tires tore at the ground beneath.

Primrose said she spent the next two days stoned.

Primrose submitted to a polygraph examination, which found she'd indeed been at the crime scene, but investigators never were able to track down the characters in her story.

They scoured a canal near Luke Air Force Base, where she said the gun Ernie used was discarded. Officers never found the weapon. They didn't have much to go on, but they did look for who in the Phoenix area owned a .45-caliber Ithaca handgun.

Bill Macumber was born in Davenport, Iowa. The family moved to Phoenix after he graduated high school, and Macumber enlisted in the Army. When he returned, he and his father opened a gas station complete with a small mechanic's shop.

Macumber met Carol because she'd dated Macumber's brother and afterward stayed close to the family. His brother expressed hard feelings about her, but the relationship went forward. Carol, 18, and Bill, 26, married in 1961.

It was a year later that an MCSO deputy, whom Macumber was friendly with, came into the father-son gas station near 12th Street and Missouri Avenue, looking for a .45-caliber handgun as part of a murder investigation. From past discussions, the deputy knew Macumber owned a .45, and the officer asked to see it. Macumber obligingly handed it over, and the deputy took it away for a forensics check.

Soon the pistol was returned, and that seemed to be that.

The gas station folded, so Macumber found a job at a factory that made computer parts, enrolled in classes at ASU, and eventually fathered three sons.

The Macumbers owned a home near 33rd Avenue and Cactus Road, and Bill loved to attend one son's tee-ball games and take the kids on BMX rides in the desert and on fishing and camping trips. During this period, Macumber worked his way into a management position at the factory.

Carol also was improving herself. She enrolled in evening classes at Glendale Community College, studying criminal investigation and fingerprinting. In February 1973, she found a job at the Sheriff's Office, where she worked in the identification department.

The position granted her access to evidence, case histories, and criminal records — not that she needed the post to view such material; employees described the whole department as unorganized. A deputy later testified that prints in the lovers' lane case were kept where anyone could have had access. The bullets recovered from the scene were stored in an unlocked desk drawer.

According to case records, it was around the time she started working for the MCSO that Macumber started suspecting his wife of cheating on him.

Carol's co-worker and close friend Frieda Kennedy later told Macumber's attorneys that the Sheriff's Office at the time was a "playhouse" environment, where "deputies would hit on the girls [who] worked in the office, telling us we looked pretty and asking us to go out for coffee." Coffee was innuendo for having "a relationship," she explained.

Kennedy told Macumber's lawyers that she thought Carol was seeing three deputies. Macumber, Kennedy said Carol told her, was a fine father but a bit of a "country bumpkin."

One spring night in 1974, Macumber recalled in trial testimony, he asked Carol to return home early to relieve the babysitter so he could attend a meeting concerning one of their sons' activities. Carol came home at 3 a.m., Macumber said in court. He testified that he asked her where she'd been, and she said it was none of his business.

Macumber said he brought up divorce, making it clear that he wanted to keep the children and the property; she could take the car and her belongings.

Carol protested, Macumber said in court, saying she wanted half of their estate and that she would get a lawyer to fight for it.

The court record goes on to detail that Macumber said they went to the bedroom, and after they lay in bed for about 20 minutes, Carol turned to him and asked, "Do you remember the kids in Scottsdale?"

He recalled responding, "What kids in Scottsdale?"

They separated in April 1974. Bill stayed in the house with the boys, and Carol moved into an apartment with Kennedy, her co-worker.

Then, in August, a gunshot came from behind Macumber's house — the bullet traveled through a window and narrowly missed his head.

Carol became a suspect in the shooting, MCSO reports show.

Around that time, records show, Carol also was involved in an internal investigation at work over her alleged office relationships.

At one point in the apartment they shared, Kennedy said, Carol claimed that her husband had mentioned something shocking a few months earlier. Kennedy continued that Carol said Macumber had confessed to killing two young people in Scottsdale in 1962.

On the morning of August 28, 1974, Macumber drove to the Sheriff's Office for what he was told would be an interview about the suspicious shooting at his house.

According to court testimony about the interrogation, when investigators asked if he thought Carol was capable of committing the crime, he said yes. But Carol already had made a statement of her own. Without a tape recorder or someone to take detailed notes on hand, Macumber was interrogated about Carol's statement — in which she'd implicated him in the double murder.

In court testimony, investigators recounted the interrogation, saying Macumber was cooperative but agitated — and surprised. One detective said Macumber was asked, "Bill, you did tell Carol that you shot those kids, didn't you?"

Carol claimed in her statement that Macumber said the Army had commissioned him to assassinate two people but that he'd shot the wrong couple. She told investigators that Macumber admitted to following the couple down the dirt road, where he shot them from his truck's window, after which he rifled through the woman's purse to make it look like a robbery.

Carol related to MCSO investigators that she recalled a night in 1962 when Macumber returned home with blood on his shirt, telling her that three young men had jumped him with a tire iron. According to her, Macumber said he'd fought off the attackers, whom he'd stopped to help because their car was disabled. This must have been the night the couple was shot, she told investigators.

Macumber declined a polygraph test but agreed to have his house searched, his gun collected, and fingerprints taken. Investigators said the partial print — which had been disregarded years before because it'd been impossible to determine whether it was a palm- or fingerprint — matched perfectly with Macumber's palm.

After his parents posted bail, Macumber, then 39, moved in with them.

At trial, Macumber's defense attorneys questioned Carol's motives. What if she'd switched the print in the file? What if, his attorney argued, MCSO deputies had helped her so they could keep the office dating scandal quiet?

Investigators also said Macumber's pistol — the Ithaca .45 he'd surrendered 12 years before and had turned over to investigators after Carol's statement — now matched markings on three bullets plucked from the crime scene.

Carol may have tampered with these, too, his attorneys proffered. Investigators couldn't match bullet markings to the breach face, extractor, or firing pin of Macumber's gun, but they matched ejector marks to three of four bullets. The ejector leaves small indentations on the back of a casing and isn't typically used alone to determine a weapon's match. But the state called an expert witness who said the markings originated from Macumber's gun "to the exclusion of all others in the world."

When Macumber's attorney sought to dispute this expert's testimony by introducing a defense expert, the judge denied the request and the jury never heard from Macumber's witness.

Without that testimony, Macumber's attorney had little on which to build a defense, especially since the jury never would hear about Linda Primrose, who'd led authorities back to the crime scene. The state never disclosed her account to Macumber's public defender.

Her story never was paired with multiple confessions to the lovers' lane killings that a man made to his lawyers and doctors during another murder case. The man's name: Ernest Valenzuela.

The confessions couldn't be disclosed because of professional confidentiality requirements. But Valenzuela, incarcerated for killing a man and raping and shooting a woman in 1968 on the Gila River Indian Community, had been murdered in prison a year before Macumber's trial.

Macumber's attorney asked the judge to allow one of the dead man's former lawyers to testify, even getting Valenzuela's mother to sign a document waving her deceased son's attorney-client privilege. But the judge wouldn't allow the confession to be mentioned in court.

In 1975, as winter transitioned to spring, a jury convicted Macumber of the lovers' lane homicides, condemning him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As he was led off to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, he recalls thinking this nightmare was a terrible mistake that would be rectified soon. After all, he reasoned: "This is America!"

His reputation beat him to prison.

The media dutifully covered Macumber's trial, mentioning that, years earlier, he'd founded the Desert Survival Unit, which worked with the MCSO to rescue lost hikers. To the other prisoners in Florence, Macumber was linked to law enforcement, and that meant he was a marked man.

The lanky inmate looked like easy game, all limbs with the muscle definition of a scarecrow.

It took three or four of them, he says now, but the other prisoners beat him repeatedly on his way back to his cell and pummeled him mercilessly in the prison yard.

Florence's warden eventually put Macumber in solitary confinement for his safety. He was separated from the population and the beatings, but the isolation meant he was released only to shower. Macumber occupied himself with letters to his family.

One day, a guard dropped off a letter from Carol's attorney. She wanted a divorce and custody of their sons.

The judge ultimately granted Macumber and his parents visitation rights, meaning his boys could visit their father in prison. His mother and father weren't able to take them much, however, since Carol moved the family and left no forwarding address.

In 1976, after Macumber had spent about a year behind bars, a judge ordered a new trial, partly because the defense's ballistics expert hadn't been allowed to testify. Macumber was bonded out again and moved back in with his parents.

His court-appointed attorney never called the ballistics expert during the new trial. Instead, Macumber's lawyer new had discovered Primrose's account of the murder and sought to link it with Ernie Valenzuela's confessions.

Five years after the lovers' lane murders, in 1967, police had arrested Valenzuela, then 23. Valenzuela later pleaded guilty to murdering the man and assaulting the woman on the Gila River Indian Community. He'd shot the man to death as he was forced to lie in the car's trunk and had chased the woman through brush, catching her and raping her repeatedly before shooting her. She survived.

Decades after representing Valenzuela in the reservation murders, attorney Thomas O'Toole said in a sworn affidavit to the Justice Project: "On a scale of one to 10 — 10 being the most evil and dangerous — Ernest Valenzuela was nine or 10."

O'Toole continued by recalling Ernie's "glowing eyes" as the killer glibly confessed to the lovers' lane murders, saying he'd shot the man "like a rabbit."

Once again, however, the judge wouldn't allow testimony about the confessions, saying it was confidential and unreliable, that Ernie could have read about the murder in a newspaper and invented that he killed the couple to get attention.

Then, Primrose's testimony fell apart. She'd married and wanted no part of the past. She told the court that she'd lied to investigators, invented the whole story — there were no drugs beneath the fence post, no woman screaming frantically and ripping at her hair, no Ernie.

Macumber was found guilty once more and returned to prison — where the beatings became more frequent. "I guess the population decided they could beat me down and beat me down, and I'd just kept getting back up," he recalls.

Considered nonviolent, Macumber was transferred in 1979 to a medium-security unit at Florence. Instead of a cage with two bunks and a toilet in the corner, Macumber shared a dorm, sleeping in an open-air hallway surrounded by other "trusted" prisoners.

Macumber took advantage of his new setting by first serving as a cable technician and later on construction crews. He taught a World War II history class and a computer course.

He also worked with the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. The Jaycees sent a delegate to the prison to inquire whether the men in Macumber's dormitory would like to start a new chapter to help raise money for the community and to start programs for inmates. Macumber decided to join and later was selected chapter president.

The convicts set to work holding classes that taught prisoners skills they'd need on the outside. Within a couple of years, Macumber was allowed to travel to Phoenix for a Jaycees awards banquet. In front of his parents, he was named Jaycees regional President of the Year in 1983, the first convict ever to receive the honor.

The '80s turned into the '90s, and Macumber was transferred to a dormitory unit in Douglas. In 1998 — the same year the Justice Project started — he mailed a news clipping to his cousin. In it, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor mentioned him and Ernie Valenzuela in an opinion about whether attorney-client privilege should continue after death.

His cousin forwarded it to Thomas O'Toole, at the time a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, who recommended that Macumber contact the Justice Project.

With limited funding and resources, the Justice Project must select cases with the strongest chances to win.

Since its inception, the Arizona project has freed 15 people. Clients have spent between five and 49 years in prison. Some have taken plea deals for time served, and others have been exonerated. Some cases drag on for years while attorneys and volunteers research and litigate. Others, like Louis Harper's, unfurl more quickly.

"I was just watching my life go by," says Harper, 26 when police picked him up where he lived and sold drugs in a poor neighborhood on Phoenix's south side. "I had a lot more time than people in there for murder."

After receiving his letter and reviewing his case, "We approached the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and asked them if there was something we can do for this guy," Katie Puzauskas says, "because he had no other options."

Harper had received two 25-year sentences, one for possession and the other for distribution. Under the law when he was sentenced, Harper had to serve two-thirds of his time before he was eligible for clemency. Had he been sentenced today, he would have to serve two years for each count before eligibility. The Justice Project harangued prosecutors into allowing Harper to plead guilty to the charges and be sentenced under current law.

In 2011, after nearly 22 years inside, the project won Harper's release for time served. Harper posed at the Justice Project's office downtown for a picture as a free man. The lawyers called his 1989 sentence of 50 years for selling a $20 rock of crack "one of the most egregious sentences the project has ever seen."

Another young black man living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, Khalil Rushdan, also ended up in prison because of a drug deal.

In Tucson in 1997, Rushdan had put a man — whom he told authorities he only knew as "Cujo" — in touch with a cocaine dealer. When Rushdan arrived at a drug house carrying baggies in which to hold drugs, he came upon Cujo and other men hauling the dealer out of the house, his dead body wrapped in a rug. Cujo held a gun to his head, Rushdan said, and promised to kill him if he told anybody what happened.

Rushdan left the state in fear, but investigators brought him back to Arizona to interrogate him about the man they planned to charge in the murder, the man he'd known as Cujo. They also threatened that he wasn't above suspicion in the killing, which prompted him to surrender his weapon for testing, take a polygraph exam, and offer his testimony.

Prosecutor Ken Peasley, hoping to surprise the defense, never subpoenaed Rushdan in Cujo's trial — which meant Rushdan wasn't legally obligated to show up in court. When police failed to offer him protection from threats he said he continued to receive from the killer, Rushdan fled to his sister's house in California.

Without Rushdan, Peasley lost. The prosecutor later told the court that he then went after Rushdan for the murder "because he didn't show up for trial like he was supposed to, and I charged him because I had the evidence to do that."

Rushdan remembers thinking when he was arrested, 'Oh, I'll take it to trial, or they'll drop the charges.'"

Using his statements to investigators that he'd arranged the drug deal that went bad, Peasley got a jury to convict Rushdan for first-degree murder and sentence him to life in prison.

He served 15 years before the Justice Project could get him freed on grounds that he was the object of a vindictive prosecution. In setting aside Rushdan's conviction, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Marshall wrote that Peasley turned the murder on Rushdan because of "Khalil's decision to exercise his constitutional right to not testify, which resulted in the acquittal of the real killer."

Byron Lacy also served time for a murder he later was found not guilty of committing.

In 1994, police arrested Lacy and charged him with first-degree murder for shooting a nightclub security guard in the head. On the night of the killing, police pulled Lacy over near the nightclub and found a .45-caliber handgun in his car and bullets in his pocket. Lacy admitted he'd been at the club and confessed that he'd fired several warning shots in the air during a fight.

A medical examiner first found that the bullet hole in the guard's skull had a smaller circumference than a .45 slug could make. But when the prosecutor asked the examiner to review his findings — this time by only viewing a photograph — he changed his opinion.

The Justice Project filed a petition for post-conviction relief, based on what it felt was Lacy's ineffective counsel and the medical examiner's unusual second-guessing of his initial findings.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Silvia Arellano reversed Lacy's conviction and ordered a new trial after he'd already spent six years in prison, writing that "the totality of the evidence establishes that no reasonable trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty."

A motion by the project to dismiss the case entirely was approved later in Superior Court.

To believe Bill Macumber killed the lovers' lane couple, you had to accept that he became unhinged and acted out a psychotic murder plot in which he believed he was an Army assassin.

It didn't make sense to the Justice Project.

For most of time it took to get Macumber out of prison, law students, private attorneys, Larry Hammond, Bob Bartels, and a private investigator volunteered their time (there was no paid project staff when the Macumber case first got under way).

Among the people the team interviewed were sheriff's deputies and Carol's friend, Frieda Kennedy, and they attempted to interview Carol. They collected opinions from ballistics experts attesting that, by today's standards, ejector markings wouldn't be proof enough for a conviction.

The Justice Project's private investigator bought the replica of the Impala door to determine whether it was possible to pull an entire palm print from the chrome strip below the window. The team then tested whether prints might have been switched and concluded that someone with Carol's training could have done that. Problem was, they couldn't put together a case they believed was strong enough to overturn the previous verdict. Low on funds, they put the Macumber case aside. Years passed.

Hope waned for Macumber, as he watched sunrises over the mountains outside the beige dormitory he shared with 30 men. He'd all but brushed the thought of freedom from his mind when a prison guard dropped a letter near his bed one night.

Years inside concrete walls had muddled his memory; as he held the letter, he didn't recognize the name on it as that of his son Ron.

Suddenly, he remembered that Carol had changed their son's last name after Macumber was imprisoned.

Ron was 34, married with three kids, and lived in a Denver suburb. He had heard of the fight for his father's freedom from the Justice Project and wanted answers.

"Dad, I don't know whether you're guilty or innocent, but I have to find out," Macumber read through tears.

The letter reminded him of what it felt like to be a father, and that renewed his hope.

He submitted a petition to appear before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. There was a slim chance of this happening, he thought, especially since he'd never admitted guilt or expressed remorse. How could he? He was innocent. But that's what the board wanted to hear.

To his surprise, his petition was approved. In 2009, the Justice Project made the case it had built for a decade to the five-member board. Hammond and Bartels submitted expert findings on the questionable ballistics. They also submitted Linda Primrose's account and the late Ernie Valenzuela's confessions.

The board recommended that Macumber be released for time already served. He only needed the governor to sign off.

Then, the unthinkable happened: Jan Brewer denied the board's recommendation. (Lately, Brewer has been accused roundly for denying righteous clemency appeals to main a law-and-order posture.)

Macumber's spirit was dashed by the decision, and his health took a drastic turn for the worse.

In 2011, a trip to the hospital for a bowel obstruction turned into internal bleeding, a heart attack, and a coma. Before he'd emerged from critical condition, he'd lost 32 pounds.

Project staff and volunteers thought the old man they'd become so attached to over the years was dying. So with no other options, on February 2, 2012, the project — citing Macumber's ill health — filed a last-ditch petition to get him released.

The state came back with a deal: Macumber would be released for time served if he pleaded no contest to the lovers' lane murders.

His prison schedule still manifest in his life, Macumber rises at 4:30 a.m. Living in his son's home, he prepares breakfast for his two great-granddaughters, who get dropped off in the morning by Ron's daughter. Sometimes Macumber cooks them pancakes shaped like little men.

Abigail is 9, and Taylor is 11.

"I tell you, between the two of them, " he says, "they've put 38 years of prison in a shadow."

Macumber spends his days writing and responding to e-mails about his plan for prisoners to earn credits through the University of Arizona, and he often fields requests from journalists, who sometimes ask why, if he's innocent, as he's always claimed, he accepted a "no contest" plea deal.

"I'm sure it was the right choice," he says, since he seemed destined to die in prison otherwise. "I know it each time I hold my great-granddaughters on my lap."

When the children return from school, Abigail plops herself on the couch next to Macumber to watch cartoons. About 9:30 p.m., he goes to bed, the same time he did during 38 years of incarceration.

Lying there, he still listens for the metallic clink of a cell door closing.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen