Tulsa, Oklahoma: For years, Corey Atchison told anyone who would listen that he was wrongly imprisoned on a 1991 first-degree murder conviction related to the shooting of a man east of downtown Tulsa.
But the idea of being released became much more of a reality to Atchison once a judge freed his brother, Malcolm Scott, from prison in 2016 after finding him and another man actually innocent in an unrelated 1995 murder case.
Atchison’s attorney, Joe Norwood, began working with the same private investigator who helped secure Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter’s release, filing his first application for post-conviction relief in 2017. The team summoned eight witnesses, including Atchison himself, to testify during hearings in September and in January, during which a star prosecution witness recanted his identification of Atchison as the shooter of James Lane during an alleged robbery on Aug. 3, 1990.
“Every time Corey Atchison had a chance to profess his innocence, he did,” Norwood said. “And he did it under oath. And he did it consistently.”
On Tuesday, their work paid off: District Judge Sharon Holmes determined Atchison provided sufficient evidence showing he is actually innocent and vacated his murder conviction, which she called a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Atchison, like Scott and Carpenter before him, walked out of the Tulsa County jail Tuesday afternoon as a free man, reuniting with Scott and their mother, Ruthella Scott, and met some of his younger relatives for the first time outside prison walls.
Atchison gave his family and reporters a small smile after being escorted out of Holmes’ courtroom for the final time, saying he was doing “Great. Great.”
“You fall and you gotta get back up before long because if you dwell on it, it’s gonna turn you down,” he said after his release from the Tulsa County jail. “You just move on and keep going. It’s the only way you’re gonna make it. I can’t hold no grudge. Life’s too short.”
The star witness in Atchison’s trial, Doane Thomas, submitted an affidavit in 2017 alleging he was pressured to identify Atchison as a suspect. Another witness, Benjamin King, testified similarly in 1991 and in post-conviction proceedings, providing testimony Holmes said “gave this court reason to wonder what really happened here.”
Other witnesses, such as Stephenne Jacob, testified recently about seeing an assailant at the scene near Fourth Street and Atlanta Avenue who did not match Atchison’s physical description. Neither Jacob nor Leticia Nottingham, another witness who has since died, was called as a witness during Atchison’s trial.
“This court thinks the purported eyewitnesses who were used were coerced,” Holmes said Tuesday morning of King and Thomas’s trial testimony. “Without those witnesses, I don’t think a jury would have found Mr. Atchison guilty of this crime.”
She said she believed Atchison’s case was “based solely on eyewitness testimony” and questioned the trial court’s decision to allow evidence about gangs in Tulsa, which she called “irrelevant” to the case, to go before the jury.
Norwood said Tuesday that the testimony about gang activity “helped scare the jury into a conviction” with inadequate proof that the homicide had a gang connection.
“I was very concerned about the tactics used in order to get these children interrogated,” Holmes said, referring to the array of witnesses, who were between 15 and 17 years old at the time, questioned in 1990 and 1991. “Frankly, I tell you I was appalled at the way those interviews went.”
Former District Attorney Tim Harris, who took Atchison’s case to trial in 1991 while still an assistant prosecutor, said Tuesday that he disagreed with Holmes’ decision, as did current Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dunn. Harris, who is now the general counsel for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, denied claims of prosecutorial misconduct in an affidavit filed Tuesday and in an interview outside Holmes’ courtroom.
“The role of a district court is not to sit as some kind of super-appellate court 16 years after the fact and look at the facts of the case and decide for themselves whether or not they thought the proceedings were fair,” Dunn said.
He said he did not believe Thomas’ testimony during the evidentiary hearings was credible and called it “absurd” to believe Harris or anyone coerced him. He also said he did not have an issue with the “tactics” used to secure witness testimony.
“Going back and looking behind the investigation and making a determination that, you know, in your view the individuals are coerced and interrogated — again, that is not something in my view that the court is supposed to do,” Dunn said.
Norwood, though, said the evidence “is just so overwhelming” that “it would be hard for a judge to keep him in at this point.” When discussing the exoneration of Atchison’s younger brother, Malcolm Scott, in 2016, Norwood said he has never heard of two siblings being cleared of separate first-degree murder convictions in the same jurisdiction.
“Maybe the main part of what makes this story so extraordinary is that it happened to his brother, also,” Norwood said.
Scott said he was pleased to see Atchison have his own day of vindication with the same judge and never gave up hope that he would be released.
“It’s that love, that faith, that strength, that support that got us here and that got him here back home with us,” Scott said.
Asked whether he thought he placed too much emphasis on statements from eyewitnesses, Harris said, “Hey, as a prosecutor you take whatever evidence you have. In 1991 that’s what was presented to me, and that’s what I presented to a jury.”
Thomas in 2017 signed an affidavit alleging that Harris “coached” him to testify against Atchison and threatened him with prison time in 2000 if he told anyone “the wrong man was in prison.”
But Harris said he was the district attorney in 2000 and therefore did not have daily docket assignments in the courthouse, which meant that “at no time did I have an office appointment with Thomas nor did we conveniently cross paths” to discuss the issue.
“There was 12 jurors that listened to this evidence that was presented to them and thought he was guilty of first-degree murder,” he said Tuesday. “I never, not only in this case but in no case, would I present false or perjured testimony, ever.” He said he did not know he was being accused of misconduct until seeing a news report about Atchison’s scheduled hearing, but Norwood said in response that “we tried to subpoena him in. He resisted the subpoena.”
Holmes, in her ruling, also said allegations about Atchison being deprived of evidence that could have helped his defense “carried a lot of weight” with her. She additionally pointed out that Lane died of a gunshot wound from a .22-caliber weapon while police recovered a .25-caliber weapon from the scene — without giving adequate context about to whom it belonged or how it got there.
Atchison spoke to authorities in 1990, Holmes said, noting that officers did not find any evidence to tie him to either a robbery of Lane or his homicide.
Norwood said the case should never have gone to trial because of how many witnesses alleged coercion on the part of law enforcement and Harris. However, current District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, whom Harris hired in 2002, released a statement defending Harris’ actions in the case and said voters repeatedly reelected Harris “because he embodied integrity.”
“Mr. Harris signed and submitted an affidavit in this case which categorically refuted the unsubstantiated allegations against him,” he said. “Now, 25 years after the fact comes a single spurious claim which runs completely counter to the stellar reputation Mr. Harris developed over his entire lifetime. Suffice it to say, the state of Oklahoma will be appealing the ruling of Judge Holmes.”