Group fighting to free man they believe was wrongly accused of murder

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by Margaret E. Beardsley

azfamily.com

Posted on July 26, 2010 at 10:03 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 27 at 12:50 PM

PHOENIX - These days it's the staff at the Justice Project, Lindsay Herf and Katie Puzauskas among them, who seem to be the only ones pulling for Bill Macumber.

His story is likely to end up playing out on the national stage some day, if Macumber ever gets out of prison or ends up dying there.

It began in 1962 in the desert near Scottsdale with the murder of a young couple, Joyce Sterrenberg and Timothy Mckillop.

"So they were just out there, looking at the stars and doing whatever and their bodies were found early the next morning outside their car, both had been shot twice," Herf said.

It wasn't until 1975, however that Bill Macumber was found guilty of their murders.

Now 35 years after he went to prison, the Board of Executive Clemency thinks there may have been a mistake.

In a unanimous decision the board asked Governor Jan Brewer to grant Macumber clemency, but she said no. 

In November of 2009 the governor denied the board's recommendation and gave no reasons for her denial. 

In an election year, there's speculation the governor's decision was political.

"I think most clemency decisions are political in nature and that's something that the governor has to take into consideration," Puzauskas explained.

At the Justice Project they're hoping she will reconsider.

They feel it's warranted because of the findings they've made since they took on the case more than a decade ago. 

Thomas O'Toole, a former Arizona judge, came to the Justice Project with a story about a client he'd had who confessed to the murders while he was a defense attorney.

O'Toole believed all these years that Macumber was not the person who committed the crime but his former client Ernesto Valenzuela was the true assailant.

Valenzuela died in prison after his confession.

The story he told was backed up by a woman who went to sheriff's deputies saying she'd witnessed the murders herself.
She said they had driven out to the desert to smoke marijuana and one of the men that she was with killed Mckillop and Sterrenberg.

She identified a man named Ernie as the assailant and the person who had later confessed was named Ernie Valenzuela, but because of a judges ruling no jury ever heard about Valenzuela.

The other thing that has driven the Justice Project is Macumber's ex-wife .

She had been working at the sheriff's department for a little over a year when she turned her husband in saying he'd confessed to the killings.

It happened just as the pair was divorcing and she was in trouble on the job.   

"The wife was being investigated by superiors at the sheriff's office and really had a motive to turn In her husband to keep her job," Puzauskas explained.

Macumber's wife, now known as Carol Kempfert, did have access to the files in the case, but has always denied tampering with evidence. Her youngest son Ronald, however, thinks she would be perfectly capable of it.

"I feel horrible that I went thru all these years thinking that my father is a murderer when he's not," Ronald said. "That his own wife could set him up the way she did."

Kempfert and her son no longer speak. In the fall Ronald said he will come and visit his father.

In the meantime, the people at the Justice Project are hoping something will finally give William Macumber a shot at freedom.

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