Nov. 7, 2012— -- A man who spent almost four decades in prison for killing two people in the Arizona desert today pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree murder and will go free.
Bill Macumber entered a plea in Maricopa County Superior Court under an agreement with prosecutors and received a sentence of time served. Although the victims' family asked Judge Bruce Cohen to deny his request, prosecutors said they couldn't pursue a third trial because key evidence had been destroyed or lost.
The 77-year-old Macumber, who had no history of violence, was convicted in the 1970s in one of the most sensational murder cases in the history of Arizona. Macumber was twice sentenced to life in prison for killing Joyce Sterrenberg and Tim McKillop, both 20 years old, and leaving their bodies in the desert. In total, he has served 37 years.
On May 24, 1962, the young couple was found shot and killed next to their car in an area now near Scottsdale. The case went cold for 12 years until Macumber's wife, Carol Kempfert, went into the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office department where she worked and told her supervisors that her husband had confessed to the murders. Macumber was arrested a week later.
In 1975, Kempfert testified against her now ex-husband, again saying that he confessed. During the trial, three pieces of evidence allegedly had been collected by investigators at the scene and were also presented: a .45 automatic pistol, a lifted palm print and bullet casings, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's office. At the time, prosecutors argued that the physical evidence linked Macumber to the murder scene.
Macumber was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to two concurrent life terms that year. After successfully appealing his convictions, Macumber was retried in 1977 and again found guilty and sentenced to two life terms.
Macumber's son, Ron Kempfert, and the Arizona Justice Project have been advocating for Macumber's release for years, saying that Macumber's ex-wife framed him and that another man committed the murders.
Ron Kempfert, now 44, told "Nightline" in a 2010 interview that he had no doubt of his father's conviction, until he spoke with prominent Phoenix defense attorney Larry Hammond in 2003 -- 28 years after his father had been sent to jail. Hammond founded the Arizona Justice Project, an organization that works to free prisoners they decide could be innocent.
"He said, 'I don't know how to tell you this, there is no way to tell you this -- we know your father, we think your father is innocent, and we're pretty sure your mom framed him for it,'" Kempfert said of the phone call with Hammond.
After recovering from the initial shock, Kempfert said he started to untangle what his mother, Carol Kempfert, had told him over the years and slowly the possibility that his father was innocent began to make sense to him. He told "Nightline" he eventually came to believe that his mother had a powerful motive: Around the time she turned her husband into police, Carol Kempfert and Macumber's marriage was falling apart. At the time, she was working in the sheriff's office, where she had access to evidence from the cold case murder, and she had recently taken classes in lifting fingerprints.