For almost 19 years, John Earl Nolley, of Bedford has been in the Texas prison system for the murder of his friend Sharon McLane. On Tuesday, May 17, he was allowed to walk out of Tarrant County’s 213th District Court a free man.
Nolley was convicted in 1998 of the stabbing murder of McLane which occurred on December 14, 1996. The jury sentenced him to life in prison. The key evidence leading to his conviction was the testimony of John O’Brien. O’Brien was a jailhouse informant who had befriended Nolley while the two worked in the Tarrant County Jail library. He testified that Nolley admitted to stabbing McLane after an attempted robbery in her apartment. He also testified that Nolley saw McLane’s blood on his shoes.
O’Brien was no stranger to trouble himself. He was a habitual felon who was in jail awaiting trial on charges that carried punishment of 25 years to life in prison. After his testimony assisted prosecutors secure a conviction, he was given a plea bargain allowing him to remain free on deferred adjudication probation.
Beyond the testimony of O’Brien, the evidence against Nolley was sparse. O’Brien’s testimony portrayed a robbery gone bad but no other evidence supported that scenario. Nothing was taken from McLane’s apartment, including cash in McLane’s purse. A bloody palm print was found at the crime scene but a forensic analysis couldn’t say who left it. Evidence of another suspect was largely ignored by law enforcement.
In the initial stages of the investigation, Nolley denied being at McLanes on the day of the murder. He later admitted to having been there to sell McLane marijuana. He later explained that he initially lied to the police because he was on probation and selling marijuana would be a violation of that probation.
Following the conviction, O’Brien, now serving time on a new charge, admitted to giving false testimony against Nolley in an effort to get a better deal on his charges. Also, further forensic analysis indicated that the bloody palm print did not come from Nolley or McLane.
In a collaborative effort from Nolley’s attorneys and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the case was reexamined. Nolley’s defense team included The Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn. In a culmination, Tuesday Judge Louis Sturns of the 213th District Court officially vacated the 1998 conviction. While the case is still under investigation and Nolley has not been officially exonerated, neither the prosecutor nor defense counsel expect the case to be retried. Judge Sturns granted Nolley release on his own recognizance pending a final resolution of the charges.
Surrounded by family, friends, and members of his defense team, Nolley called himself “blessed” to have received so much support during his ordeal.