A Valley man who was released from the Arizona State Prison system on Wednesday met with reporters 24 hours after a judge set him free.
Bill Macumber was convicted in 1974 of a double murder that had happened in 1962, even though an eyewitness told Maricopa County Sheriff's investigators that the killer was a Hispanic man named "Ernie" who was about 5' 8" or 5' 9". Macumber is noticeably taller than that.
Two years after the murders in the desert near what is now the intersection of Scottsdale Rd. and Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., a man named Ernie Valenzuela was stopped for a traffic violation by Scottsdale police. He matched the eyewitness' description of the murder suspect. However, no one made the connection.
In 1966, Valenzuela was arrested for another murder, and while being held in jail, confessed to his cellmate that he'd killed two other people in the desert north of Scottsdale. The cellmate told jailers, who interviewed Valenzuela. He confessed the killings to them as well.
However, that confession never went anywhere. A few years later, Valenzuela was killed while serving time in a federal prison in Kansas.
Fast forward to 1974. Family members claim Macumber was framed for the 1962 murders by his ex-wife. Based largely on her testimony, Macumber was convicted – not once, but twice in separate trials and sent to prison.
In 1999, the Arizona Justice Project was founded with a goal of exonerating people who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Macumber's case "was one of the first ones that came to our attention," according to AJP's Larry Hammond. The nonprofit group has been working ever since to get Macumber out of prison.
His case came before the State Clemency Board twice. In 2009, the board voted unanimously for clemency, saying "there is substantial doubt that Mr. Macumber is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted." However, Gov. Jan Brewer denied the recommendation without explanation.
In 2011, Macumber applied for clemency a second time, and the board voted 2-2 with one member not voting. However, Brewer again denied the request.
Finally, AJP filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief last February, asking a court to release Macumber on the grounds that he was innocent, and wrongly convicted. On Wednesday, a judge accepted a plea deal under which Macumber pleaded "no contest" to reduced charges of second degree murder. "No contest" means a defendant is not admitting guilt, but is admitting that there is enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to time served and released.
Meeting with reporters on Thursday, Macumber said "The world has passed me by in four decades. I'm not overly interested in totally catching up, but I will catch up as much as I have to." However, he said he's computer literate because he taught computer science to other inmates in prison, and plans to learn how to use the internet.
Asked what it was like to walk out into society for the first time, Macumber said "Awesome. Maybe like born again. We climbed in the car and we drove out to my cousin's, and I saw so much that I'd never seen before."
A reporter asked Macumber his opinion of Gov. Brewer after she twice denied his clemency request. He responded, "One of the rules I learned early in my life was, if you can't say anything nice about somebody, don't say nothin' at all. So with your permission, I'll say nothin' at all."
Macumber says his experience has not shaken his faith in the justice system. "Justice, however late, is still justice," he said.
PHOTO: Bill Macumber (left) talks to reporters Thursday in his attorney's office. Next to him is Larry Hammond of the Arizona Justice Project.