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After 37 years in prison, Arizona man breathes free

PHOENIX — A man has been released from prison after serving 37 years for two murders he said he didn’t commit.

Bill Macumber, 77, was convicted in 1974 of the 1962 murders of Joyce Sterrenberg and Timothy McKillop in north Scottsdale. After years of legal wrangling, Macumber was able to plead no contest and was released from prison on Wednesday.

Macumber maintained his innocence on Thursday. His son Ron Macumber believes his mother framed his father.

“I made that statement [of innocence] when I was first questioned by the detectives in August 1974,” Bill Macumber said while fighting tears. “I made that statement of innocence, I don’t know, 10,000 times since. I’ll take that statement to the grave.”

Macumber said he doesn’t remember where he was when the murders happened.

“I don’t have the least idea where I was. Tell me where you were a month ago today at three o’clock. It’s impossible. When you’re looking 10 years, 12 years, 15 years back, how do you differentiate one time from another?”

Macumber was convicted in 1975 after his wife, Carol Kempfert, testified that he confessed to the crime. He successfully appealed that conviction but was retried in 1977. He was found guilty again and sentenced to two life terms.

Macumber’s attorneys said the jury never heard evidence that a man named Ernie Valenzuela confessed to the crimes.

They said Valenzuela made the confession while in prison for another crime. The New York Times reported that because Valenzuela had died in a prison fight in 1973, the judge ruled that evidence of his confession was hearsay.

In 2009, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer denied a recommendation from the state clemency board that his life sentenced be reduced.

Macumber doesn’t have a high opinion of Brewer.

“My brother and I were taught at a very young age, by my parents, that if you don’t have something nice to say about a person, don’t say anything at all,” Macumber said. “So with your permission, I’ll say nothing at all.”

The Arizona Justice Project, an organization that works to free prisoners it believes could be innocent, has been assisting Macumber since 2003.

The group believes that Kempfert framed Macumber for the killings. With the project’s help, Macumber petitioned the Maricopa County Superior Court for post-conviction relief last year.

He was granted an evidentiary hearing. Prosecutors told the court on Tuesday that without the necessary evidence, they would be unable to try the case for a third time.

Macumber was allowed to plead no contest in the case. He was sentenced to time already served and freed from prison.

Macumber won’t say whether he thinks that Kempfert set him up. But his son thinks she did.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, yes, I did.” The 44-year-old would not elaborate.

Meanwhile, Bill Macumber said he spent his first night as a free man with his family, eating pizza and drinking his first beer in 38 years.

Ron is happy to have his dad back.

“It’s awesome — it’s over. He’s free. After all of this time, he’s free to just do whatever I want with him now.”

The two are planning a fishing trip.