During the 20 years De’Marchoe Carpenter was in prison, he often depended on his imagination to stay sane and focused.
Sitting in his cell, he would let his mind take him somewhere else. Usually, he dreamed of being in society and spending time with his family. But occasionally, he pictured himself sitting courtside at a Thunder basketball game in Oklahoma City.
“And now I’m here, and it’s amazing,” Carpenter said, situated in a seat just feet away from Thunder players.
On Sunday, Carpenter, along with Malcolm Scott, spent Christmas courtside watching the Thunder beat the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Not only was it their first Thunder game, it was also the first Christmas the two spent outside of prison in more than 20 years.
In 1994, when Scott and Carpenter were only 17, they were arrested in the drive-by shooting death of Karen Summers. The two were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In recent years, several witnesses in the case recanted their testimony, saying police pressured them to implicate Scott and Carpenter.
One of the witnesses, Michael Lee Wilson, confessed to being the shooter just days before he was executed for a separate killing. In May, Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes declared Scott and Carpenter innocent, exonerating them after both served more than 20 years in prison.
Last month, the Court of Criminal Appeals handed down a unanimous finding of actual innocence. In the ruling, the judges wrote they agreed with the decision to release Scott and Carpenter.
Now, Scott and Carpenter are looking forward. They don’t dwell much on the holidays they missed, but they talk enthusiastically about their new memories and what they’re looking forward to.
On Sunday, the Thunder treated Scott and Carpenter with courtside seats to the game and shootaround. They say their first Christmas out of prison will be one to remember.
“Just being here, coming here and stepping out on the court,” Scott said. “Just being here on courtside — this is amazing just in itself. I mean, I’m really here at the Thunder game courtside.”
Before the game started, Scott said he would keep an eye out for his favorite players, Anthony Morrow and Russell Westbrook.
In mid-December, Morrow called the two on a video chat to tell them they would be sitting courtside during the game and practice.
The call was so unexpected they didn’t recognize the shooting guard at first. (They thought they were attending a meeting in attorney Dan Smolen’s office to discuss their case.)
But when Scott and Carpenter were handed two boxes with the Thunder logo stamped on top, it clicked. Inside, were two Thunder Jerseys with “Scott” and “Carpenter” printed on the back. It also contained tickets to the game.
“This is love, man,” Carpenter told Morrow during the call.
Attorney Josh Lee, who volunteered his time on the exonerees’ case, had planned the surprise for weeks. Initially, he told the two he had gotten tickets to the game from a friend.
“My friend was the Oklahoma City Thunder, apparently,” Lee said. “We pulled off the surprise, I think.”
Scott and Carpenter have been Thunder fans since the team came to Oklahoma City in 2008. Once a Chicago Bulls fan, Scott was quick to root for his new home team.
“This is home. This is what we look for,” Scott said. “You always want to root on your home team, so for us to get our own, I was excited.”
As a teenager, Carpenter played basketball. He isn’t as good as he used to be, but he jokes he could still beat Westbrook one-on-one.
‘It was going to be so wonderful’
As a sixth grader at Hamilton Middle School in North Tulsa, Carpenter dreamed of being a basketball player.
He looked up to “all the greats:” Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
Carpenter imagined making it to the NBA. And with the money that came along with the hefty contract as one of the best players in the league, he would buy a big house.
“It was going to be so wonderful,” Carpenter said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.”
The middle school he attended as a child is an elementary school, now. Last Tuesday, Carpenter went back to his old school to share his story with students there. He told them about his time in prison and how he was found innocent more than 20 years later.
In the school’s auditorium, students asked Carpenter what he imagined his adult life would be like as a child and how it felt spending so many years incarcerated knowing he was innocent.
Looking back at the day he was exonerated, Carpenter said it took awhile to process that it was actually happening. He said it was amazing to breathe fresh air and see society after so many years.
After a student asked Carpenter about a scar he got from a gunshot as a teenager, a photo of a jagged line running across the man’s stomach appeared on the auditorium’s projector. Some students squealed, squirmed in their seats or said “Ew.”
Carpenter doesn’t mind the kids’ candid questions. He’s soft-spoken and patient as he explains the injury and the health problems that came with it.
Tuesday’s visit was Carpenter’s second in six months. He hopes he might leave a lasting, positive mark on the kids’ lives. Maybe they would remember his words later and stay on a good path.
“All of you all will grow up and maybe something I said was the reason you all pushed and tried to go in the right direction, went on to be successful,” Carpenter told the kids.
“Whatever you want to be, you can do it. So focus on your education.”
Taking in every moment
Earlier on Sunday, Scott spent Christmas with his family for the first time in more than 20 years.
“We had the most amazing moment, just to see (my mom) again after so long and be able to spend this Christmas with her for the first time in 22 years, that was really one of the biggest things for me,” Scott said.
Carpenter said out of all the holidays he’s had, this one will stand out to him the most. His favorite part of the day?
“Just being here,” he said from his courtside seat.
“We’re going to remember this for a long time to come,” Scott said. “So I’m just taking in every moment. Every bit of it.”