Man imprisoned in Ariz. murders pleads no contest, released after 37 years

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- A man imprisoned for nearly four decades for the killing of two 20-year-olds pleaded no contest Wednesday to second-degree murder charges in a move that secured his freedom.

Bill Macumber, 77, entered the plea in Maricopa County Superior Court under an agreement with prosecutors and received a sentence of time served.

He had twice been convicted of first-degree murder in the 1962 deaths of telephone company workers Joyce Sterrenberg and Tim McKillop, but maintained his innocence.

Macumber's attorneys said he will get to enjoy a bit of freedom when he is released this week.

Judge Bruce Cohen had been set to hear evidence when attorneys on both sides presented him with the plea agreement. The judge granted Macumber's request after family members of the victims asked him to deny Macumber a chance to be released.

Prosecutors said they couldn't go forward with a third trial because key evidence had been destroyed or lost.

The conclusion of the case was "an imperfect effort at justice," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said.

"How do you accept something like that?" McKillop's cousin, John McCluskey, asked outside the courthouse. "How do you take a blow in the stomach? We know he's guilty in our hearts."

The Justice Project has been advocating for Macumber's release in recent years, saying no DNA evidence linked him to the crimes, his wife framed him; and another man had confessed to the killings.

The clemency board told Gov. Jan Brewer in August 2009 that an injustice has been done in the case, and there was substantial doubt that Macumber was guilty of the crimes. Brewer denied the recommendation to either commute the sentence to time served or reduce it to 35 years to life in prison. The board denied Macumber's second application for clemency earlier this year.

Authorities investigated the shootings for more than a decade before arresting Macumber. Investigators found a palm print on a car that matched Macumber, and bullet casings that matched those fired from Macumber's gun.

A jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1975, and he received two concurrent life terms in prison. The state Supreme Court later overturned those convictions, saying the trial court wrongly excluded testimony from a defense expert who had challenged the ballistics findings.

Macumber was convicted again during a second trial, and the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts.

The Justice Project took up the case more than a decade ago, telling the clemency board in 2009 that jurors never heard of the confession by another man that was backed up by a witness account.

The Justice Project said Macumber's wife falsely pinned the murders on her husband as they were going through a divorce and he pressed for custody of their three sons. Montgomery said Tuesday he didn't support that claim.

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