Jury never heard the multiple confessions of a third party
In 1975, Bill Macumber was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of Tim McKillop and Joyce Sterrenberg in 1959. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms of life imprisonment. The Arizona Supreme Court reversed the convictions on the ground that the trial court erroneously excluded a defense expert’s testimony that would have challenged the testimony by the State’s expert on ballistics evidence. Bill was retried in 1976-77. In the second trial, the State’s case rested primarily on the testimony of Bill’s wife, Carol Macumber, who claimed he had confessed to the murders. Bill was ultimately convicted and given consecutive life sentences. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but held that the life sentences could not be imposed consecutively.
In February 2012, a team of lawyers at Perkins Coie assisted the Arizona Justice Project and filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, stressing evidence the jury had never heard: Ernest Valenzuela’s multiple confessions to committing this crime, corroborated by information given by witness Linda Primrose, which was also supported by physical evidence found at the crime scene that had gone unexplained for years. The petition illustrated how the expert testimony on forensic evidence was inaccurate and misleading, and pointed to changes in the law and new evidence supporting Bill’s claim of actual innocence.
As an alternative to litigation, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office offered Bill a no contest plea agreement that would result in his immediate release. Bill who was 77 years old and in poor health opted for his freedom. After serving nearly 38 years, Bill was released November 7, 2012. A great deal of this success resulted from the extraordinary team at Perkins Coie, lead by attorneys Jordan Green and Lee Stein.
In May of 1962, the bodies of Tim McKillop and Joyce Sterrenberg were found in the open desert area in Scottsdale. Both victims had been shot in the head and were lying near Sterrenberg’s Chevrolet Impala. Investigating officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) recovered.45 caliber shell casings, remnants of one .45 caliber soft-nosed slug, a handkerchief, and a thatch of human hair from the scene. They also found tire tracks and various footprints thought to belong to the killer. They also lifted several latent fingerprints from the Impala after it been towed downtown for processing.
Although the investigation was intensive, there were no suspects until September 1962. At that time, 17-year-old Linda Primrose told MCSO investigators that she had witnessed the murders. According to Primrose, the day before the murders, she had ridden with a female and several men (one she knew was named Ernie Salazar), to a desert area to look for a stash of drugs. When they encountered another car near the drug stash, Ernie argued with the occupants, a man and a woman, and eventually shot and killed both of them. Details of Primrose’s story matched those of the murders, including details about the hair found at the scene. Primrose led MCSO officers to the scene of the crime, and passed a lie detector test, and a psychiatrist who interviewed her said she was being truthful.
In 1964, an inmate in the Maricopa County jail, Ernie Valenzuela, told his cellmate that he had committed the murders. Valenzuela repeated his story to a psychiatrist in jail in August 1964 and to the sheriff’s office. Valenzuela was not charged or held in the murders, and was released after serving three years in prison on other charges.
In 1967, Valenzuela committed and was charged with a murder on a federal reservation in Arizona. During an interview with his attorney, Thomas O’Toole, of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Valenzuela volunteered that he had committed the murders and provided details. He subsequently repeated his confession to a defense psychiatrist (after being injected with sodium pentothal) and to his attorney in the 1967 murder for which we was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. Valenzuela was stabbed during a prison confrontation and died on November 8, 1973. None of his confessions about the McKillop/Sterrenberg murders had been publicly known at the time of his death.
In August 1974 (12 years after the murders), Carol Macumber, an 18-month employee of the MCSO, told her employer that three months earlier her husband Bill had confessed to killing McKillop and Sterrenberg. His alleged confession was made only to Carol and not repeated during any subsequent interview. Bill always maintained his innocence. Carol stated that in May of 1962, Bill had come home about 10:00 p.m. with blood on his shirt and told her he had been in a fight with some teenagers. MCSO officers interviewed Bill, who denied committing the murders. The police obtained a .45 caliber handgun and a set of fingerprints from Bill. The State’s experts concluded that a partial latent print lifted from Sterrenberg’s Impala matched Bill’s, and that ejector markings on the shell casings found at the scene matched ejector markings made by Bill’s .45 caliber handgun. On this evidence alone – a confession 12 years after the crime, a partial fingerprint, and ejector markings on a bullet casing – Bill was convicted of the first-degree murders of McKillop and Sterrenberg, and sentenced to serve two concurrent terms of life imprisonment.
The Arizona Justice Project began work on Bill’s case in 2000. The team reviewed case files and initial investigation information. Through the course of their investigation they determined that several key pieces of evidence along with numerous reports on the case were missing. The Arizona Justice Project also uncovered information that called both the ballistics and latent-print evidence into question.
Due to the diligent efforts of the attorneys at Perkins Coie and other Arizona Justice Project volunteers, Bill was released from prison on November 7, 2012, after serving nearly 38 years.
Check out the below links to see coverage of Bill’s release: