(Adds comment from Innocence Project director, paragraph 10)
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, Nov 19 (Reuters) - A man convicted of murder in the 1978 shooting death of a Southern California man should be freed after 36 years behind bars, based on DNA analysis and investigative reports withheld from his trial attorney, a prosecutor said on Wednesday after a judge overturned the conviction.
The California Innocence Project, which worked to win the freedom of Michael Hanline, now 69, and pressed local prosecutors to re-examine the evidence, said his case represents the oldest conviction ever reversed in state history.
The shooting death of truck driver J.T. McGarry that led to Hanline's 1980 conviction and his bid for exoneration has been a complicated case to unravel, said Ventura County special assistant district attorney Michael Schwartz.
Prosecutors are still investigating who might have killed McGarry, who had ties to a motorcycle gang, he said.
McGarry, a Ventura resident who also used the name Michael Mathers, dealt in drugs and ran motorcycle-oriented swap meets for the publishers of Easyriders magazine, according to court papers. He went missing on Nov. 10, 1978, and was found shot to death two days later by a highway.
Hanline, who was romantically involved with McGarry's ex-girlfriend, was arrested on an unrelated charge that month after traveling to Northern California and using McGarry's credit card, court papers stated.
He was charged with murder by prosecutors who suggested his motive was jealousy over McGarry's on-again, off-again relationship with the ex-girlfriend.
DNA analysis was not conducted at the scene where McGarry's body was discovered because the technology did not exist then. But Ventura County prosecutors said in court papers an analysis this year found the DNA profile of an unidentified male, not Hanline.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Donald Coleman last week ordered Hanline to return to court on Nov. 24 for a hearing, where he will be released on bail based on the DNA tests and investigative reports prosecutors said should have been turned over to defense attorneys in his trial.
"The documents withheld by the government during Mike Hanline's trial and the DNA testing point to another suspect," Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said in an email.
The judge left open the possibility prosecutors could retry Hanline.
"It's possible that Hanline did it, but we're not confident enough at this point that he's guilty to justify keeping him in prison," Schwartz said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh)