Josh Horner’s family and fellow church members celebrated on the Deschutes County Courthouse steps after the case against him was dropped.

Josh Horner’s family and fellow church members celebrated on the Deschutes County Courthouse steps after the case against him was dropped.

Emily Cureton/OPB

Josh Horner faced 50 years in prison before an appeals court overturned his conviction this summer. And Monday, the Redmond, Oregon, man got an apology on behalf of the state of Oregon from John Hummel, the Deschutes County district attorney whose office prosecuted Horner on charges of child sex abuse.

The jury that convicted the 42-year-old plumber didn’t even agree he was guilty. But Oregon is one of two states where juries can convict without unanimity in most felony cases, the exception being murder.

Deschutes County Superior Court Judge Stephen Forte sentenced Horner to 50 years of prison time in March 2017. But an investigation by the Oregon Innocence Project found the prosecution relied on false testimony by the alleged victim, without any physical evidence.

Horner spent 18 months in prison before the conviction was overturned this summer, and with Monday’s motion to drop the case, he won’t face another trial.

Horner gave a brief statement on the steps of the same courthouse where he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to what would have most likely amounted to life in prison.

“This is a day I wasn’t sure I’d see,” he said, his voice breaking. “Today I walk out of here a free man and I’d like to thank the good lord for that … [And] my friends and family who are all here to support me today.”

He was standing next to his wife, Kelli. The couple married not long before the charges were filed. On Monday, they were surrounded by members of the church they attend in Redmond.

Horner gave “tremendous thanks” to the Oregon Innocence Project, a group of attorneys and investigators who worked to clear his name. They spent nine months looking into the case and persuaded the DA’s office to do its own investigation.

OIP is a nonprofit whose mission is to overturn wrongful convictions. And it’s the only organized effort in Oregon to track and investigate inmates’ claims of innocence.

Horner is the first person to be exonerated in Oregon since the project started four years ago.  

OIP legal director Steve Wax said his case shows the need to investigate claims of innocence, because he said the system for finding guilt has huge flaws, particularly with sex abuse cases.

“The toll that it’s taken on [Horner] is immeasurable. We need to have a system in place that adequately funds investigation by police and prosecution, that adequately funds investigation by defense, so that we’re not in this situation in the future,” Wax said.

He said Oregon’s guidelines for investigating child sex abuse allegations should be amended. The project also advocates reforming eyewitness identification, interrogation practices, discovery practices “and other policies that do not serve to protect the innocent or punish the guilty.”

OIP reaches inmates through a 30-question survey it distributes in prisons.

“Horner filled one out and fortunately for him, he filled that out very early in the process. The other clients we’re representing — one has been in prison 20 years. One has been in prison 12 years, and [another] one has been in prison 19 years,” Wax said.

Of about 300 investigated claims, Wax said the project has five cases it is actively involved in.

In Horner’s case, Wax said key allegations came up mid-trial and weren’t investigated thoroughly at the time by the prosecutors or the defense attorney. For example, a false claim that Horner killed a dog to intimidate the alleged victim made a huge impression on the jury. But long after the verdict, investigators with the DA’s office found the dog alive and well.

But today, Wax blamed only the system and applauded prosecutors and DA Hummel for working with investigators to continue seeking the truth after the trial verdict.

Hummel campaigned for his job on a platform of criminal justice reform.

He stood on the opposite side of the courtroom from Horner as he read a statement and apologized. 

“While I cannot say with certainty that Mr. Horner did not sexually abuse the named victim, I can say I am not convinced by a preponderance of the available evidence that he did, and I’m certainly not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

In a press release, he thanked the Oregon Innocence Project for “helping me get it right.”

He wrote: “A prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, not convictions. The Oregon Innocence Project’s dogged work on this case helped me see that justice required the dismissal of this prosecution.”