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.