Michael Lee Wilson was a cold-blooded killer who beat a store clerk to death and then went shopping for shoes.
But just days before his own death by lethal injection in 2014, Wilson wanted to right a wrong.
Wilson said two innocent men, Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter, had served more than 20 years in prison for a crime that he committed. But he had stayed silent until it was clear his time running out.
Wilson had fired the shots that killed a woman during a drive-by shooting in 1994, he said, and Scott and Carpenter weren’t even in the car. Because he was already facing the death penalty in a separate case, he never spoke up.
“I feel bad about it. I’m sorry for taking all those years away from them,” Wilson said during a videotaped statement from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on Jan. 7, 2014. He was interviewed by an attorney for the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
“We got to make this right. We can’t have this. I’m not the same guy anymore,” he said. “I know it’s kind of late and everything. … I’m going to make sure I’m straight. I don’t want this on me.”
Two days after giving that videotaped statement, Wilson was executed for the 1995 beating death of QuikTrip clerk Richard Yost. Among Wilson’s last words: “Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter are innocent.”
Wilson’s videotaped interview was played Friday for a packed courtroom during an evidentiary hearing for Scott and Carpenter. Both are serving life sentences plus 170 years for the drive-by shooting that killed 19-year-old Karen Summers, a single mother.
District Judge Sharon Holmes heard testimony to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to throw out the life sentences a jury gave Scott and Carpenter in 1995.
Over the past 20 years the two have sat in prison, Michael Harris never forgot about their case.
Harris was a Tulsa County public defender in 1994 assigned to represent Scott. He carried the case files with him ever since, hoping witnesses would step up and tell the truth.
“I’m not here because of the existence of doubt,” Harris said Friday during the hearing. “I have absolute, positive knowledge that these two men have spent 20 years in jail for a crime they did not commit.”
Before announcing her decision, Holmes stared silently into the packed courtroom and gathered her thoughts.
“Both sides have made some very compelling arguments. The court does recognize I have a decision of great magnitude to make. I’m not going to make that decision today,” Holmes said.
“This is not something I can take lightly. … I am dealing with people’s lives.”
Summers — an unintended victim of gang retaliation — was shot by a gunman who drove by a crowded house party in north Tulsa. Two teenage boys standing with her were also shot but not seriously wounded.
Within days of the shooting, Tulsa police arrested Scott and Carpenter, both 17, and cut a deal with Wilson, 19 at the time.
Police found Wilson with what turned out to be the murder weapon and the rental car used in the killing was registered to him. He agreed to testify against Carpenter and Scott in exchange for pleading to a reduced charge of accessory to murder after the fact and a five-year sentence.
Because of the deal he cut with prosecutors, Wilson was out on a reduced bond for his role in the drive-by shooting when he beat Yost to death during the robbery in 1995. Wilson was sentenced to death in that case and executed Jan. 9, 2014.
Other witnesses have come forward in the years since the killing to say Wilson was the triggerman, and his accomplices were Billy Alverson, 24, and Richard Harjo, 16. Both were also convicted in the beating death of Yost and Alverson was executed in 2011.
Wilson reportedly told others he “blasted” some Hoover Crips, seeking vengeance because he’d been shot in the leg a few days earlier by members of a rival gang.
Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dunn told the courtroom Friday that this was “like so many other gang cases” with reluctant witnesses who change their stories to help friends.
“Which story do you want to believe from Michael Wilson? He told so many different stories,” Dunn said.
But the state of Oklahoma made its case against Scott and Carpenter largely on Wilson’s testimony.
Prosecutors stoke gang fears
Scott and Carpenter were 17 when their lives as they knew it would end.
They spent the evening of Sept. 10, 1994, hanging out with two girls and made a brief trip to a convenience store at 1:30 a.m., where they ran into Wilson before returning home.
About 2 a.m. the same night, Summers stood outside a house in the 200 block of East 29th Street North, talking to two boys she recently met. A maroon Ford Taurus drove slowly by the party and then made a second pass.
“Hey Blood!” someone yelled from the car. A gunman leaned out of the rear driver’s side window, firing shots into the crowd that killed Summers and wounded two others.
The next day, Tulsa Police Detective Mike Huff went to Wilson’s home to ask what he knew about the shooting.
Wilson’s maroon Ford Taurus rental car was parked in his driveway at the time. Huff caught Wilson trying to conceal a black .380-caliber handgun in his pants. Police had found .380-caliber ammunition at the scene, according to news accounts.
Though Wilson was arrested that day, he wasn’t treated as the shooter in Summers’ death, even when ballistics tests revealed the gun he tried to hide was the murder weapon. Instead, prosecutors charged Scott and Carpenter.
Wilson was offered a deal: Testify against Scott and Carpenter and plead guilty to accessory after the fact for a five year sentence. He agreed, telling police he had given Carpenter bullets that night and that he hid the murder weapon afterward.
Wilson was released on $5,000 bond. Three months later, he was arrested along with Alverson and Harjo in the beating death of Yost during the QuikTrip robbery, Feb. 26, 1995.
When it came time to testify against Scott and Carpenter in Summers’ death, Wilson had little to lose. He backed out of his deal with prosecutors.
“I’m facing the death penalty. I don’t recall nothing,” he said on the witness stand.
Other key witnesses in the trial were Kenneth Price and Rashun Williams. During Scott and Carpenter’s trial, they were the only witnesses who testified to seeing them in the car.
However during Friday’s hearing, Price said he repeatedly told police he didn’t see who fired the shots. He had been shot in the buttocks and he was turned away from the street, he said.
By the time he testified in the trial, Price changed his story, saying he saw Scott hanging out of the car and firing a gun. He also placed Carpenter in the car, adding: “It looked like he was firing shots too but I don’t know what kind of weapon he had.”
Police found no evidence at the scene of a second gun.
Though Williams has been described as one of two eye witnesses who identified Scott and Carpenter, his actual testimony was far less certain.
“Did you see who was in the car?” Assistant District Attorney Mark Collier asked him during the trial.
“Somewhat,” Williams answered. “I thought it was Malcolm Scott and Demarco Carpenter … Well, most likely. I mean I seen – it looked like Malcom.”
Both Williams and Price have since signed affidavits saying their testimony was a lie and they didn’t see who fired the shots.
Williams, who died in 2013, stated in his affidavit: “I was at the party all those years ago but I really didn’t see anything. I really believe two innocent men are in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. I hope justice will be served.”
Throughout the 1995 trial and in closing arguments, Collier and Assistant District Attorney Michelle Keely raised the specter of Tulsa’s gang violence. Deadly clashes between the Hoover 107 Crips, Red Mob and other gangs in Tulsa often dominated news headlines at the time.
Keely repeatedly used the defendants’ street names, calling Scott “Dirty Mac” and Carpenter “Loco.”
“They’ve both been identified from the witness stand by people who knew these guys … as rival gang members. They knew them as Red Mob Gangsters,” she told the jury.
District Judge Ned Turnbull admonished the prosecutors throughout the trial that their questions about “certified” gang members, gang graffiti and related issues were irrelevant.
“The court is not interested in how long the Crips and the Bloods have been in dispute,” Turnbull said.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Harris urged jurors not to be swayed by “hysteria.”
“They drag these pieces of human refuse down here and attempt to try and scare you, and frighten you so much that you wouldn’t think about the fact that their case did not make sense,” Harris told jurors.
After about three hours of jury deliberations, prosecutors began to worry. They made an offer to Scott and Carpenter: Plead guilty and serve eight years instead of risking life sentences.
Both men quickly declined, insisting they were innocent.
After nine hours of deliberations, jurors returned a guilty verdict: Scott and Carpenter each received life plus 170 years.
Witness: police ‘coerced’ testimony
On the stand in Holmes’ court Friday, Harris tried to explain why Scott and Carpenter rejected the plea deal.
“They were young, and they were under the misapprehension that because they were innocent, they were under some kind of talisman that would protect them,” he said.
During questioning by Scott’s attorney, Josh Lee, Harris said no physical evidence linking the pair to the fatal shooting was introduced at trial.
Harris said he learned after the trial that a forensic report found their fingerprints were not on the murder weapon. Prosecutors did not introduce that report at the trial, he said.
Harris said members of the jury “took their responsibility very seriously.” Still, the testimony about gang violence had a prejudicial impact, he said.
“As early as voir dire, they started working the idea that you can’t understand the things gang members do. … It was an appeal to pernicious racial stereotypes … scary black guys.”
Due to the nature of a post-conviction relief hearing, Dunn could do little but object throughout the day and and try to confront witnesses who recanted their testimony.
Following Friday’s hearing, Dunn was exasperated as he tried to explain to reporters that the District Attorney’s Office would never knowingly prosecute innocent men. He noted that several key witnesses had died and that affidavits shouldn’t be accepted as truth without corroboration.
Additionally, Wilson wasn’t sworn in or cross examined during his statement, Dunn said.
Holmes allowed defense attorneys to submit nearly all of the witness’ affidavits saying they’d lied to police about Scott and Carpenter’s involvement. Three witnesses who wrote affidavits or statements have since died — Alverson, Williams and Wilson.
A key witness in the state’s original case, Kenneth Price, had several angry exchanges with Dunn during Friday’s hearing.
Price said he and Williams repeatedly told police after the shooting that he didn’t see who fired the shots.
“I was trying to tell the police all along. They pretty much coerced us to say it and told us to say we seen it even if we didn’t,” he testified.
Price said he changed his story after detectives told him “we can file charges on you guys.”
Under questioning by Dunn, Price said he didn’t know the names of the detectives who allegedly pressured him to lie.
“Everything you testified to at the trial of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter was a lie?” Dunn yelled.
“I’m looking you in your eye and telling you,” Price retorted. “You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened.”
Tulsa Police Detective Gary Meek briefly testified for the prosecution Friday, saying he questioned Price only once and never pressured him to change his statement.
Huff was not called to testify but in a 2014 interview, he said Wilson, Harjo and others who had information about Scott and Carpenter’s case should have come forward.
If “pertinent, potentially reliable, relevant information comes forward, efforts should be made to investigate this information. Words alone do not offer corroboration,” Huff said.
A final statement
Wilson’s videotaped statement — recorded by attorneys for the Oklahoma Innocence Project — followed Price’s testimony.
For a man two days away from execution, Wilson was remarkably upbeat in the video.
“I know you seen the OU game, right?” he asked a woman as he signed paperwork. “That was my last OU game,” he said with a laugh.
He told attorney Tiffany Murphy he “went out looking for revenge” after he had been shot by rival gang members. Wilson said he sat in the back, driver’s side seat of the rental car while Alverson drove and Harjo sat in the passenger seat.
Both men would later be arrested with Wilson for their roles in Yost’s death.
“I shot Karen Summers, Ken Price and another guy, Alonzo, called Little 7,” Wilson says in the video.
He said when Huff visited him the next day and found the gun, “I’m nervous because they’ve got the murder weapon. I’m fixin’ to go to jail.”
Instead, police told him he was free to leave, Wilson said.
“They let me go,” he said, laughing. “They let me go.”
Harjo, serving life without parole in Yost’s death, was brought from prison to Tulsa County District Court on Friday to testify. Harjo said Wilson fired the fatal shot from the car’s back seat while he rode in the passenger seat and Alverson drove.
He said he never spoke up about the case while housed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary with Wilson for 10 years because he was afraid Wilson would retaliate. Once moved to a different prison, Harjo said he wrote a statement about what he knew and sent it to a friend of Scott’s.
Eric Cullen, a Tulsa-based private investigator, was called as a witness Friday because he first began helping Scott and Carpenter when they wrote him letters from prison. Cullen had sent a pamphlet to several state prisons seeking inmates who needed help with appeals.
The men were serving time in separate facilities and wrote him strikingly similar letters detailing their claims of innocence, Cullen testified. He took their cases at no charge and wrote to the other men they claimed had committed the crime.
Wilson allowed Cullen to visit him in 2007, and while he didn’t confess at the time, he said he “had some things to get off his chest” and he wanted to “make things right.”
During cross examination, Dunn suggested Cullen had a bias against Tulsa police, because Cullen mentioned his father worked at TPD and witnessed practices he disagreed with.
Cullen replied that he was actually hired by several Tulsa police officers as an investigator in 2011 when they faced corruption charges in federal court.
Attorneys for Scott and Carpenter said that despite attempts by the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office to paint Wilson’s statement as a death-bed confession designed to help out friends, there have been others willing to testify to their innocence for more than 20 years.
Lee gave an impassioned closing argument in which he wrote down four large numbers on an easel in front of the courtroom: 7,812. That’s how many days Scott and Carpenter have served for a crime they did not commit, he told the judge.
He listed the key points of the state’s original prosecution, saying all have now been refuted.
“It was a trial based on fear, not facts. … Their entire case is gone. There’s nothing left that is even remotely trustworthy anymore.”