A jury found Josh Horner guilty of sex crimes in 2017. He went to prison for 18 months of a 50-year sentence before he got an apology from the top prosecutor on the case. Now, he’s the face of the only organized effort in Oregon to investigate inmates’ claims of innocence.

Oregon Innocence Project Legal Director Steve Wax introduces Josh Horner at a fundraiser on Dec. 6, 2018. 

Oregon Innocence Project Legal Director Steve Wax introduces Josh Horner at a fundraiser on Dec. 6, 2018. 

Emily Cureton / OPB

Steve Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project, stood next to Horner at a December fundraiser in Bend. Horner is the first person exonerated through the group’s work.

The project has gotten more than 500 requests for assistance since it started in 2014. Wax described randomly pulling the case that would become a success story out of the screening pile.

“And there were a number of legal errors that we saw, but we don’t deal with legal errors — we look for innocence,” Wax said. 

The Portland attorney argued Horner’s wrongful conviction points to bigger problems with how the state investigates sexual abuse allegations. And, Horner was convicted by a non-unanimous jury, a practice every state but Oregon has banned.  

After the speeches, friends and family surrounded the man who’d been in a cell in Pendleton just a few months prior.  

“We call him our adopted son,” said Gary Lynch.

Lynch met Horner through a shared passion: building and driving race cars. Lynch said he never doubted his friend’s innocence.

“If I hadn’t known him, if somebody in this room was accused and I didn’t know them, I’d say, ‘Well, it’s a 50-50 deal, maybe, maybe not.’”

That kind of ambiguity sticks, especially so in Horner’s case, because the charges were dismissed without prejudice. And those two little words — without prejudice — make a big legal difference.

“Meaning the case can be reopened and charged by the District Attorney’s Office at a later date, if and when additional information is obtained,” Lt. Curtis Chambers of the Redmond Police Department told OPB.

Redmond police investigated the original complaint and arrested Horner. The agency declined to release investigative records for this story. Chambers said that’s because the case will remain active for decades, due to the statute of limitations on the crimes Horner was accused of.

A crowd listens to Josh Horner's story at a fundraiser for the Oregon Innocence Project in Bend on Dec. 6, 2018. 

A crowd listens to Josh Horner’s story at a fundraiser for the Oregon Innocence Project in Bend on Dec. 6, 2018. 

Emily Cureton / OPB 

“It’s important to believe juvenile sex crime victims and giving them opportunity to process and ultimately disclose in the time frame that’s comfortable to them,” Chambers said.

Redmond police kept Horner’s property seized as evidence in the case, even though Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel filed an October letter saying “the state has no further interest in these items.”

Since the cops aren’t on the same page as the county prosecutor, Horner will need a judge to decide if he gets his stuff back. He’s scheduled back in court in February.

In his first public interview since being accused, Horner described what he went to prison for as worse than murder. 

“Sometimes I catch myself thinking, ‘Geez, what a terrible story.’ And it’s my own story,” he said.

The story told in the National Registry of Exonerations is that Horner was wrongly convicted of sexually abusing a child. At 42, he was sentenced to live out the rest of his life in prison. He said he’s painfully aware that the exoneration doesn’t remove the stain of the accusations.

Josh Horner climbs into a race car, a hobby where mistakes can be fatal. 

Josh Horner climbs into a race car, a hobby where mistakes can be fatal. 

Emily Cureton / OPB 

“To be to be accused of something … and then to be vindicated from it,” Horner said. “What story does somebody believe?”

An appeals court overturned Horner’s conviction because it found there was important evidence of abuse by another person, which the jury never heard. An independent investigator also showed how a really damning story the jury did hear was actually false.

Before all this, Horner was a social guy who owned a plumbing company. But since the trial, he said he doesn’t trust people anymore, and wouldn’t go into a stranger’s house for anything.

Read more: Exonerations Raise Questions About Oregon’s Controversial Jury System

The one place he said he still feels like his old self is an industrial garage in Redmond. There, he climbed into the driver’s seat of a shiny blue race car. He carefully wriggled into the cramped cage behind the dash, narrating the process: “When they’re on fire you can get out of em quicker … usually. Unless you’re unconscious.”

He explained how this kind of race car doesn’t have gears. It gets pushed onto a dirt track by another vehicle and then it lights up like a firework going over 100 miles per hour.

“There’s really no room for error. And things happen really fast in these cars,” he said.

A car like this doesn’t go backward. “Not on purpose. If things go bad in them, they go in every direction,” Horner said.

He described feeling an obligation to help the lawyers who freed him and wrongly accused people in any way he can. But really, Horner just wants to forget the last few years of his life and some people’s opinions of him.

“To sift through what other people might think, you know, and then hold on to that. That’s heavy damage,” he said.