A man who had served nearly 17 years of a prison sentence of life without parole for the death of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, lounge owner was released from prison Thursday after testing on evidence from the crime scene failed to find his DNA.
Willard O'Neal of Tulsa was released hours after pleading no contest to second-degree murder and being sentenced to time served under an agreement with prosecutors. He had been convicted of first-degree murder in the fatal 2001 shooting of Bruce Chamberlain outside the Trapeze Lounge.
When asked how he felt about his first breath of freedom, O'Neal said: "It's hard for me to do that. I'm just blessed. It's really hard to say." He added: "I'm going home to eat right now: chicken, cabbage, beans, whatever I can fit in my stomach."
By entering the plea, O'Neal does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him, according to Vicki Behenna, director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which took O'Neal's case in 2015.
"It's unfortunately what a lot of people who file for post-conviction relief have to do" to win their freedom, Behenna said. "He's 52 years-old, he got life without. If you have an opportunity to get out ... you take that chance" in order to be released. He was going to die in prison without this deal."
Behenna said she also believes a key prosecution witness, Charity Owens, lied to win leniency on unrelated charges when she testified that O'Neal told her he committed the crime.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said he made the plea offer instead of re-trying a case more than 18 years after the crime without being able to locate Owens.
"She can't be found, we diligently searched," Kunzweiler said.
"It's not fair to the victim's family," he said of the plea deal, "but there was little choice ... We were not able to locate the eyewitness to what was going on."
But Kunzweiler added: "The one clear thing that is true in this case, he's a convicted murderer."
O'Neal was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2004 for killing Chamberlain and wounding another man in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2001, as they left the lounge after closing.
O'Neal was also convicted and sentenced to life for shooting with intent to kill. That charge was dismissed Thursday following his plea.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project in 2015 first called for DNA testing of blood, shell casings and a beer bottle from the crime scene and of fingerprints on a vehicle connected to the slaying. The testing was conducted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which found no DNA from O'Neal on the evidence, according to Behenna.