In 1962, a grisly double murder on a deserted stretch of desert rocked a small community outside Phoenix.
A young couple had been shot to death in a case that stumped Maricopa County investigators. Then, something happened that should have cracked it wide open: A man named Ernest Valenzuela confessed to the crime. But police didn't pursue the lead, just one misstep in an investigation and eventual trial that were rife with irregularities.
More than a decade passed, and the case turned cold. Then it took a surprising turn in 1974, when a respected local man and father of three named Bill Macumber was accused of the crime.
Macumber was going through a bitter break-up with his wife, who happened to work in the sheriff's office. She told authorities that her husband had confessed to the crime, and he was arrested.
"He was a pillar of his community," says Barry Siegel, the author of a new book about the Macumber case titled Manifest Injustice.
"No criminal record — not even the proverbial traffic ticket," Siegel tells NPR's Robert Smith. "He was president of the local Little League, where he coached his son's team. He had organized a desert survival unit for the sheriff's department to go out on rescue missions for people lost in the desert."
Macumber went to trial in 1975. His working-class family couldn't afford much in the way of a legal defense. And the prosecution was buoyed by his wife's testimony against him. He was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to life in prison.
He was 40 years old, and lost all contact with his three young sons.
And the confession from Ernest Valenzuela? The jury never knew about it. Valenzuela had confessed to his lawyer, Thomas O'Toole, who was sure police had the wrong man. O'Toole asked to testify at Macumber's trial, but the judge forbade it, citing attorney client privilege even though Valenzuela had been killed in a prison fight.
"The law says that a dead client's right, attorney client privilege, trumps the right of a defendant in a murder trial," Siegel says.
Macumber maintained his innocence throughout multiple trials and appeals, but more than two decades had passed, and it seemed likely he would die in prison. Then the nonprofit Arizona Justice Project stepped in.
Lawyers with the group worked for more than 10 years on Macumber's behalf, trying to get him freed.
Late last year, a petition for post-conviction relief led to a deal with the prosecutor. Macumber was allowed to plead no contest and was released for time served.
He had spent 38 years in prison.
Now 77, Macumber is living with his cousin in a remote northwest corner of New Mexico, enjoying a view that couldn't be further removed from a prison yard.
"I'm looking across a valley filled with juniper and cedar trees to a range of mountains," Macumber tells Smith. "And no barbed wire or no wire of any kind interfering with the view."
Macumber, who has spent nearly half his life behind bars for a crime he maintains he did not commit, says he is not bitter.
"Bitterness, vengeance all of that, there's no saving grace in those things. What I'm doing is looking ahead down the road," he says.
That includes spending time with his family, including his great-grandchildren, and helping those wrongly convicted of crimes.
Macumber says he's grateful for the volunteers with the Justice Project, but recognizes there are others who aren't lucky enough to receive free help.
"There's not liberty and justice for all; there is liberty and justice for those who can afford it," Macumber says. "It is a disease that affects this nation today, and it is one that had better be corrected."
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.
In 1962, a school bus full of kids spotted a mysterious crime scene in the Arizona desert: an abandoned car, a man and a woman shot in the head. And police were baffled. The case went unsolved for a decade, stone cold, until they arrested a man that no one would have suspected, a man who swore he was innocent, Bill Macumber.
BARRY SIEGEL: He was a pillar of his community, married, three young sons, no criminal record - not even the proverbial traffic ticket. Not just a spotless record, he was one of the most admired and revered people in his community.
SMITH: That's Barry Siegel. He's the author of a new book about the Macumber case called "Manifest Injustice." The injustice in the title refers to something that the jury in Bill Macumber's trial never learned: someone else had confessed to this crime. A sociopath named Ernest Valenzuela told his lawyer: I committed those murders. I killed that couple. But the lawyer couldn't say anything - attorney/client privilege. And Valenzuela couldn't say anything because he died in jail.
SIEGEL: The law says that a dead client's right - attorney/client privilege - trumps the rights of a defendant in a murder trial.
SMITH: Nobody could help Bill Macumber. The man who did not admit to the crime went to jail for life. And author Barry Siegel says this was one of those cases where there wasn't enough evidence to prove Macumber's innocence.
SIEGEL: They didn't use DNA in evidence back in the time he was arrested, of course, but you could've still gone to the physical evidence now and tested it for DNA, except for the fact that all the physical evidence in Macumber's trial was ordered destroyed a few years after his conviction just as a matter of housekeeping in Maricopa County.
SMITH: So let's go forward 21 years later. Bill Macumber has been in prison for two decades, and by all accounts, he is a model prisoner, he is in the local Jaycees. He's sort of a legend in prison, but mostly forgotten about outside of prison. So 21 years later, what happens?
SIEGEL: Tom O'Toole was the lawyer who heard Ernest Valenzuela's confession to the murders way, way back in the 1960s. He had always been haunted by the case, always been haunted by his inability to get up and testify about what he had heard.
So in 1998, he picked up the phone and called Larry Hammond, the founding director of the Arizona Justice Project, told Larry Hammond: I heard the confession of the true killer in the Macumber case. Macumber is innocent. You need to take up his case. And that's how the Arizona Justice Project entered the case.
SMITH: Now, this book was going to have an unhappy ending. The Justice Project tried a couple of times to introduce new evidence to get Bill Macumber out of jail, and for various legal reasons and politics, they never managed to do it. You were set, really, to end this book with a man who says he's innocent spending the rest of his life in prison.
SIEGEL: I just wanted to see the insides of this case. I wanted to use this story as a window onto the legal system. And a Hollywood ending doesn't happen that often in the legal system, and so I was satisfied to just be able to tell the story of this case, however it ended.
SMITH: And then?
SIEGEL: And then the most remarkable turn of events. A couple months ago, I had actually finished writing my book. Bill Macumber had tried one last clemency hearing, hadn't succeeded. Then they finally were able to file the petition for post-conviction release that they had never been able to complete because they just didn't have the right assembly of evidence.
And lo and behold, it went to a sympathetic judge. Out of the blue, he granted an evidentiary hearing. That put pressure on the Maricopa County prosecutor's office. If Bill got a new trial, they would never be able to prosecute him because all the evidence had been destroyed. Suddenly, the state wanted to bargain.
In early November last year, I flew out to Phoenix to see one of the most remarkable moments of my life. Bill Macumber was brought into the courtroom. He was allowed to plead no contest. And for that, he was released. I watched as the guards unlocked the cuffs, the shackles, the chains, and Bill walked free out of the courtroom - 38 years in prison, 77 years old. Never thought I'd see that day.
SMITH: Joining us now is Bill Macumber, who is speaking to us from his home. That must feel good, to be able to say you're speaking to us from your home.
BILL MACUMBER: Most certainly.
SMITH: Describe what you see outside your home right now. You have picked a place as different as possible from prison.
MACUMBER: Well, I'm approximately five miles south of the Colorado line in New Mexico, and I'm looking out the kitchen window at the moment. I'm looking across a valley filled with juniper and cedar trees to a range of mountains over about 10 miles away, snow on the slopes, snow on the ground, and no barbed wire or no wire of any kind interfering with the view.
SMITH: Now, you were allowed out of prison in the end by pleading no contest. And no contest is a term of technical art, which means that in the eyes of the law, they can still consider you guilty, but you did not admit guilt. How did you decide in your own head that this is the best way to go?
MACUMBER: Had I not had any family to consider, if I had only considered myself, I would have never entered the no contest plea. I would have followed the post-conviction release through to its end, whatever that end might have been.
SMITH: So you would have died in prison.
MACUMBER: I could've, yes. But I did have a family to consider. I had a family who has endured the same thing I have endured for 38 years. I, through the no contest plea, had the option then of spending whatever time I had left with my family, particularly my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. So it was not really an option. It was something that I could not not take advantage of.
SMITH: It seemed like in the end your story really showed each and every flaw in the U.S. justice system, from the beginning when you were convicted, to the end when you got out, but even got out, sort of on this strange, almost technical decision.
MACUMBER: Our justice system is severely flawed. There's not liberty and justice for all. There's liberty and justice for those who can afford it. But for the average man, there's no guarantee they're going to get it. All of the legal assistance that I received over the last 12 years since the Justice Project became involved, if it was totaled up, we'd be talking millions and millions and millions of dollars.
And it would have been totally impossible to do that had it not been for the gracious efforts of the Justice Project, of the volunteers. It just would not have been possible. That's all there is to it.
SMITH: So do you feel bitterness about this whole process?
MACUMBER: No, no. Bitterness is for fools. Bitterness, vengeance, all of that, there's no saving grace in those things. What I'm doing is looking ahead down the road. I don't look back. It doesn't produce any positive results.
SMITH: Bill Macumber, now free from prison, is the subject of the new book "Manifest Injustice" written by Barry Siegel, whom we heard from a bit earlier. Bill, thank you so much.
MACUMBER: Thank you very much, Robert, for your interest.
SMITH: And what are you going to do with the rest of today?
MACUMBER: I'm working on a little story for my great-granddaughters. I'm going to finish that up. Then we'll just see what the day brings.
SMITH: Wow. An unpredictable day. That's a nice change.
MACUMBER: Yes, it is.
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