A judge on Thursday set a date to decide the fate of Corey Atchison, a Tulsa man serving a life sentence for a murder he’s spent nearly three decades denying.
Atchison, now 48, was convicted in 1991 of killing James Warren Lane and sentenced to life in prison.
At the end of Thursday’s hearing, Joe Norwood, Atchison’s attorney, asked District Judge Sharon Holmes to vacate the guilty verdict against Atchison and to find him “actually innocent” of the crime. Testimony given during two evidentiary hearings has shown that two supposed witnesses to the shooting have claimed for decades they were coerced and threatened by police into saying they saw Atchison shoot Lane.
And Norwood argued that he found new evidence that police had never disclosed to Atchison’s trial attorney, including a detective’s report with the street name (Candyman) of the person several eye witnesses claimed to have seen shoot Lane that day. “Candyman” was reportedly 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, while the hulking Atchison is closer to 6-foot-2, 220 pounds.
Norwood also argued that Atchison’s trial attorney had been ineffective, having not called several witnesses to testify that could have helped Atchison’s case.
“It’s not just about coercion,” Norwood said, saying that he wanted to give Holmes a “10,000-foot overview” of the case. The case, Norwood argued, was about undisclosed evidence and evidence disclosed too late for Atchison’s defense attorney to utilize. It’s also about a defense attorney who didn’t do his job.
And yes, Norwood said, it’s also about homicide detectives threatening teenagers into fingering their friend for a crime he didn’t commit.
But vacated murder convictions are rare, and Assistant Tulsa County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn told Holmes that without new evidence, he doesn’t believe there’s much of a case to overturn an almost 30-year-old verdict.
“Recanted confessions, ineffective assistance of counsel … Where does it end,” assistant district attorney Jimmy Dunn asked. “It has to end at some point.”
For now, it’s set to end May 2. Holmes picked that date for her decision on Atchison’s case, saying she needed time to “wrap my head around everything.”
Atchison was one of six people to testify Thursday in front of Holmes. The others were the three passengers in Atchison’s car the night of the murder — Ben King, Marquis Alexander and Mareo Johnson. Eric Cullen, a private investigator working Atchison’s case, and DeMacio McClendon, who testified as a teenager that he was threatened by police detectives in 1991 to say that Atchison was the shooter, also testified Thursday.
“I never saw Corey Atchison shoot someone,” McClendon said on the stand. He told Joe Norwood, an attorney for Atchison, that detectives told him back then that if he didn’t claim Atchison was guilty they would arrest him instead for the homicide.
“They said they was going to send me down the drain,” McClendon said.
King gave a similar story, talking about the time as a teenager that officers arrived at his high school to say they were arresting him for unpaid traffic tickets. When he got to the police station, the officers told him that he was being charged with murder and robbery, King testified.
King said that detectives told him that day that his friends had said he was the shooter, but they promised that due to his age, they would handle his case in juvenile court if he would just tell them he had seen Atchison shoot Lane.
The questioning had gone on for hours, King testified. He was tired and confused and wanted to go home, so he told them what they wanted to hear.
“I figured it was a lie and it wasn’t going anywhere,” King said.
When the case reached a preliminary hearing, charges against King, Johnson, and Alexander were dropped. Atchison remained charged with murder. Months later he was convicted and sentenced to prison, and despite both King and Alexander having recanted their confessions, neither were called to testify in the trial.
Atchison testified on Thursday, as did King, Johnson and Alexander, that they were in a car the night of the shooting, when they heard a gunshot and saw Lane down on the pavement.
They testified Atchison pulled the car over into a nearby apartment complex and ran to Lane, who was still alive, and began yelling for someone to call an ambulance. Alexander testified that he saw a handgun next to Lane and bent to pick it up, before Atchison grabbed him and told him not to touch the gun.
Police arrived and cordoned off the area. About an hour or two later, Atchison, King, Johnson and Alexander got back in the car to leave, but were pulled over by officers who searched the car and let them leave.
None of the four were initially treated as murder suspects, though months later they all found themselves charged with the murder.
King, who cried throughout his 30 minutes of testimony on Thursday said that he was angry the confession he claims was coerced by detectives has been used to keep Atchison behind bars for so long.
For now, it’s mostly a waiting game. Prosecutors on Thursday called no witnesses and seem to be relying on the strength of the state’s original case in 1991 to hold up. Norwood said he has some things to file before the May 2 decision date, but for the most part it’s now up to Holmes, who told attorneys on Thursday that she wouldn’t speculate so soon on what her decision would be.
“But there will be a decision,” she said.