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

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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.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen