By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The Oklahoma Innocence Project (OKIP) announced in a press release on Wednesday, September 11 that Tulsa resident Willard O’Neal was wrongfully convicted. In 2001, O’Neal was found guilty of first-degree murder of a strip club owner and attempted murder of his bodyguard. He was sentenced to life without parole in 2004.
“We are incredibly happy that Willard’s long journey to freedom has ended today,” said Vicki Behenna, OKIP’s Executive Director Emeritus in the OKIP release. “He is now a free man. It would not have been possible without the hard work of so many OCU law students who have been working on his case since 2015.
“Their dedication to review and investigate Willard’s case has resulted in his walk to freedom today,” Behenna added. “We will continue to work on behalf of all Oklahomans who have been wrongfully convicted.”
The plea agreement hearing will take place Thursday, September 12 at 9:30 a.m.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law has been working on the O’Neal case since the summer of 2012 when they filed the initial application for post-conviction relief.
The only evidence tying Mr. O’Neal to the murder was the fabricated testimony of the state’s main witness, who received a plea deal for her testimony, the release stated.
Dana Hertneky reported for News9 that the brief filed by OKIP in 2015 laid out the case showing that O’Neal was innocent. The “witness the State used to directly link Mr. O’Neal to the crime” “fabricated a false story” to “shield herself from criminal punishment.”
In 2016, the OKIP filed a motion with the District Court in Tulsa County to have some of the evidence collected from the crime scene tested for DNA. Last year, the OSBI confirmed that Mr. O’Neal was not a contributor and his DNA was excluded from the tested items.
While this finding was a significant development toward proving O’Neal’s innocence, it was not enough for the District Attorney’s Office to agree to release O’Neal.
According to the release, on Wednesday, September 4, the Tulsa District Attorney offered to resolve O’Neal’s case with an “no contest” plea to Murder in the Second Degree and a sentence of time served.
“It is a huge victory for Mr. O’Neal, who has spent the last 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit,” the release said.
Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at Cardozo School of Law, The Innocence Project exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To learn more, visit innocenceproject.org.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law is dedicated to identifying and remedying cases of wrongful convictions in Oklahoma. OCU School of Law students work together with the OKIP legal director to pursue only cases in which there is credible evidence of factual innocence.
“After four years of amazing effort from our OCU Law Students and the Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law, an innocent man finally goes free today after 17 years in prison wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit,” said OCU School of Law Dean Jim Roth on Facebook. “Our Students and Staff (thank you Vicki Behenna!) were able to prove through retesting of the evidence that Mr. O’Neal’s DNA was in fact not present at the crime scene in spite of trial testimony.
So Proud of these students who are bringing Justice to Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice system.”
On Sept. 6, OKIP announced that attorney Andrea Miller was selected to be group’s new Legal Director.
Prior to joining the OKIP full-time, Miller was the Appellate Division Chief for the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office where she handled capital, general felony and misdemeanor cases on direct appeal and post-conviction.
She served as an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University School of Law and has previously taught courses in legal writing and Wrongful Convictions. She still serves as the adjunct clinical professor for the Oklahoma Innocence Project Clinic.
Miller served as president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association for three years and remains active on its board of directors. She is a 1996 graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Law where she served as the Research Editor of the Oklahoma Law Review.
For more information, visit okinnocence.com or call 405-208-6161.
Updated 9-12-19 with quote from OCU School of Law Dean Jim Roth and photos courtesy of OKIP Facebook.