Johnny Edward Tallbear of Oklahoma City, who spent over 26 years behind bars on a first-degree murder conviction, has been released after a new test of the DNA evidence led to the dismissal of the case against him.
Tallbear, who is now 61, had shackles removed from his wrists and ankles in court and left the building on Monday a free man. It felt “great” to be out of chains, he told the journalists, adding that the first thing he wanted do after getting home was “eat some decent meal.”
“I’ve been saying for more than two decades that I didn’t have anything to do with this horrible crime. I’ve always known that I’m innocent and now the DNA has proved it,” said Tallbear, as cited by the Innocence Project, which facilitated the new testing.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater confirmed that the case was dismissed “based on the DNA evidence that wasn’t available at the time of trial,” which went against all the other evidence that led to Tallbear’s conviction in 1992.
“Eyewitness misidentification is a leading contributor to DNA-based exonerations,” according to the Innocence Project. Since DNA was first used in an exoneration of a prisoner in 1989, more than 2,230 people have been cleared of wrongful incarceration in the US, according to the national Registry of Exonerations.
The prosecutors “are not in any way agreeing that he’s actually innocent,” Prater stressed, but acknowledged that “there’s a reasonable probability that the jury could’ve made a different decision” on the man’s fate.
Tallbear was arrested as one of the two suspects in fatal beating and stabbing of a homeless man in late 1991. The new test revealed that his DNA was not at all present at the crime scene in Oklahoma City and that the blood evidence in the case actually belonged to two unidentified persons.
Despite there being no physical evidence against Tallbear, the jury convicted him based on the testimony of an eyewitness and the findings of a forensic expert, whose unprofessionalism later led to an FBI probe and review of thousands of cases from the period between 1980 and 1993. Tallbear was sentenced to life without parole, which was later amended to life imprisonment by the Court of Criminal Appeals.