OKLAHOMA CITY – For the first time in over 17 years, Willard O’Neal is a free man.
In 2001, O’Neal was convicted for the murder of a strip club owner and attempted murder of the owner’s bodyguard.
According to the Oklahoma Innocence Project, the conviction was based on fabricated testimony of the state’s main witness, saying the witness received a plea deal for her testimony.
“The only real evidence that tied Mr. O’Neal to this crime was a preliminary hearing transcript of one woman whose guns were the murder weapons in this case, and who we knew was potentially soliciting somebody to commit this murder in the weeks before,” said Vicki Behenna, of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
O’Neal was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2004.
“There was some dark times, there were some struggles but we knew that justice would be served so we just hung in there,” O’Neal’s cousin, Linda Johnson, told News 4.
14 years after that conviction, the Oklahoma Innocence Project asked for new DNA testing in the case. Last year, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation determined O’Neal was not a contributor and his DNA was excluded from tested items.
On Sept. 4, the district attorney offered to resolve O’Neal’s case with a no-contest plea to second-degree murder. As part of the plea, his sentence was credited with time he has served.
“It's been a long time coming. My family has been beside me. All I can say is praise God, I'm free,” said Willard O’Neal.
As O'Neal is working to get back on his feet, a GoFundMe account has been created to help with basic necessities.
A group of students at the Oklahoma City School of Law decided to do what they could to help O'Neal get back on his feet.
The 'Fighting for Innocence Through Exoneration' club at the law school is working to help raise money for O'Neal. They say that unless he is fully exonerated, he is ineligible for other funds through the national Innocence Project and is not able to file a civil suit against the state.
Organizers say they hope to raise $5,000 in order to help O'Neil purchase car insurance, steel-toed boots for his new job, clothes and other necessities.