A Belle Fourche man who has been serving a 25-year prison sentence since 2001 has been released after a Deadwood judge ruled that compelling new evidence may soon prove that Oakley Engesser was wrongly convicted 12 years ago.
Engesser was released from the minimum security Rapid City unit late Tuesday afternoon after Judge Warren Johnson overturned Engesser's vehicular homicide and battery conviction Monday. Johnson has ordered a new trial in a deadly crash that killed Engesser's friend just outside of Sturgis in 2000.
In July of 2000, Engesser and his friend Dorothy Finley left the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis in Finley's red Corvette. An hour and a half later, they crashed after driving more than 100 miles per hour. Engesser was injured and Finley died. A year later, a jury convicted Engesser for vehicular battery and manslaughter.
However, new testimony since the conviction is revealing that witnesses saw a woman - Finley - behind the wheel.
"The evidence is powerful. It's overwhelming. In my judgment, this man has been in prison for over a decade for a crime for which he is unquestionably innocent of," Engesser's attorney Mike Butler said.
Engesser has appealed his conviction several times, and he has actually been released twice but he was ultimately sent back to the Rapid City minimum security unit because his appeals were lost due to procedural issues.
Now new witnesses are coming forward.
"These aren't family members suddenly providing some sort of an alibi or something like that. These are all independent individuals, no motives, no reason to come to court and be challenged on what they saw," Butler said.
Just this spring, a new witness came forward after reading about the case in the newspaper and said she saw a woman driving the car that day. It supports other witnesses who have come forward over the years and said the driver appeared to be a woman.
"He (Judge Johnson) found her believable and credible and then he considered her evidence along with everything else that has so far been presented and came to the conclusion that it's a very compelling case that he is in fact innocent," Butler said.
Butler says that evidence could soon exonerate the man who has been spending time behind bars wrongfully convicted.
"He's still got over a year's worth of time to be parole eligible on his 25-year sentence and I think any one day, any one hour we can give Oakley back, we need to give it back to him," Butler said.
It will now be up to the South Dakota Attorney General's Office to decide whether they want to appeal Judge Johnson's decision, hold a new trial in the case, or just dismiss the case all together. The Attorney General’s Office tells KELOLAND News it hopes to make that decision soon.