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

Page 7 of 8

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen