Snitch Testimony Sent Innocent Fort Worth Man to Prison for 18 Years. Lawmakers Hope He's the Last.

AUSTIN - John O’Brien worked in the Tarrant County jail library in 1997, and befriended a fellow inmate who asked for his advice. One day as they chatted about John Nolley’s legal woes, the pet store clerk and small-time pot dealer confessed to savagely stabbing to death Sharon McLane in her Bedford apartment.That’s the story O’Brien told jurors at Nolley’s 1998 trial, anyway. He also assured them that prosecutors hadn’t promised him anything in exchange for his testimony and that he had never before snitched on a fellow inmate.Almost none of O’Brien’s story was true, particularly the bit about Nolley’s confession. But the jury didn’t know that, and they sentenced Nolley to life in prison for the crime. He spent 18 years in prison before investigators uncovered new evidence pointing to his innocence.Nolley’s out of prison now, starting a new life and waiting for a final court ruling in his case. Meanwhile, lawmakers hope a new law they approved this year that took effect Sept. 1 will prevent others from experiencing the same kind of injustice.House Bill 34 includes a number of measures intended to prevent wrongful convictions, including a requirement that prosecutors gather more information about jailhouse informants like O’Brien. The law, which requires prosecutors to track their use of jailhouse informants and provide more information to defense lawyers, is the strongest anti-snitch measure in the nation, criminal justice advocates say.The bill represents the culmination of nearly a decade of legislative reforms meant to address problems that have led to the exoneration of more than 320 wrongfully convicted Texans since 1989.“We are less likely to convict an innocent person now than we were 10 or 20 years ago,” said Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas. “These reforms in law have made a significant difference.”John NolleyIn 2015, investigators in Tarrant County’s conviction integrity unit began digging through decades-old files in Nolley’s case after new DNA testing and fingerprint analysis produced no evidence that he was at the bloody 1996 crime scene.They discovered the truth about O’Brien’s testimony.He had been in the jail awaiting trial on theft charges that stemmed from a scheme he and several co-conspirators hatched to steal pickups and trailers full of welding and farm equipment. His long rap sheet included nine previous felonies and multiple probation revocations. He faced up to 99 years behind bars.Despite his claims to the jury that he had never offered to snitch and had never testified in court before, the prosecutors’ files showed that for 18 months before Nolley’s trial, O’Brien had been desperately peddling his testimony to investigators. Just five months before Nolley’s trial, O’Brien had falsely testified in another murder case.  Continue reading...

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