Joshua Horner, a Redmond man facing five decades in prison after he was convicted of child sex abuse, was exonerated Monday morning after a subsequent investigation revealed significant flaws in the testimony against him.
A standing-room-only crowd of Horner’s friends and family burst into applause in the courtroom after Circuit Court Judge A. Michael Adler granted Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel’s request to drop charges against Horner, who had been sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2017 after being convicted of sexually abusing a child.
Horner spent 1½ years in prison after being convicted. However, after the District Attorney’s Office was contacted by the nonprofit Oregon Innocence Project, investigators revisited the case and discovered one of the key details for Horner’s accuser’s testimony — that Horner shot her dog, Lucy, in front of her, as part of a threat not to tell police about the abuse — was untrue.
“Your honor, Lucy the dog was not shot,” Hummel said during the hearing. “Lucy the dog is alive and well.”
Adler dismissed the charges Monday without providing additional comment. In an emotional speech on the courtroom steps, Horner thanked the Oregon Innocence Project for giving him a second chance.
“It’s an organization that provided me with a miracle,” Horner said.
Hummel was conciliatory toward Horner during the Monday hearing, noting that the District Attorney’s Office has an obligation to fix the situation if it presents inaccurate testimony.
“Mr. Horner, on behalf of the state of Oregon, I apologize that untrue evidence was used against you in your trial,” Hummel said. “That should happen to no one.”
On March 21, 2017, Horner was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being convicted of six counts of first-degree sexual abuse, two counts of sodomy and several related charges. The vote by the jury was not unanimous.
The case eventually made it to the desk of Steve Wax, legal director for the Oregon Innocence Project. The nonprofit, founded in 2014, tracks and investigates cases on behalf of incarcerated people with the goal of exonerating those wrongfully convicted of crimes. Wax said the organization works with prisons to distribute 30-page questionnaires that inmates may fill out.
Wax said sexual abuse cases, particularly those involving a minor, can be difficult to adjudicate, given the lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence that typically accompany them. That lack of evidence, along with several factual errors, including the situation involving the alleged victim’s dog, caught Wax’s attention about this particular case.
“There were just too many legal errors in the way that the evidence in this case came out,” Wax said.
The Oregon Innocence Project reached out to the District Attorney’s Office in April, and the two jointly investigated the case. In doing so, they discovered Lucy, a black lab, alive and well in Gearhart, Wax said.
Following the revelation that this portion of the testimony was untrue, investigators attempted to locate the alleged victim for additional questioning. Hummel said the accuser declined a number of opportunities to discuss her testimony and ran away from investigators after they tracked her to her mother’s home outside Redmond, according to Hummel’s motion.
Separately, an Oregon Court of Appeals judge issued an order in July reversing the conviction and returning the case for a new trial. After Monday’s action in court, Horner will not be retried.
Hummel noted that while he couldn’t say for sure that Horner had not committed the crimes he was convicted of, he was not convinced by the available evidence with aspects of the testimony invalidated.
“When we present an untrue statement about a material fact, we need to acknowledge it and rectify it,” Hummel said. “And that’s what I’m doing today.”
Horner’s case represents the first exoneration for the Oregon Innocence Project. Wax said the 4-year-old nonprofit relies on donors, including some in Deschutes County, and having an exoneration under its belt gives donors something to show for their efforts.
“In terms of the life of the project, this is significant,” Wax said. “Because people don’t understand — this doesn’t happen overnight.”
Horner was surrounded by dozens of friends and family members who burst into applause and cheers when the charges were dropped. One friend, Gary Lynch, of Redmond, said he and other friends took turns visiting Horner in prison in Pendleton. When Lynch learned the charges would be dropped, his first reaction was: It’s about time.
“What we’ve all learned from that is that it could happen to anybody at any time, and it’s probably the scariest thing you could think about,” Lynch said.
Wax said he expects Horner to be added to the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks exonerations across the country and includes more than 2,000 names. Wax credited Hummel for being willing to work with the project on the subsequent investigation.
“You heard the prosecutor apologize to (Horner), and that is a highly unusual, highly unusual thing,” Wax said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org