— Ziva Branstetter (@ZivaBranstetter) May 9, 2016
The truth set Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter free, after spending more than 20 years in prison for a murder confessed to by another inmate two years ago as he headed to the death chamber.
The first-degree murder convictions of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter were overturned Monday by Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes, who took the added step of declaring both men “actually innocent” of the 1994 drive-by shooting for which they were sentenced to life in prison, plus 170 years.
“I am just thankful for a second chance at life,” Scott told a throng of reporters after his release. “I am glad that the truth has finally been told and everyone knows.”
Holmes announced her ruling to a packed courtroom Tuesday afternoon, several months after a January evidentiary hearing that examined flaws in the state’s case against the two men.
Shortly before his 2014 execution, convicted killer Michael Lee Wilson confessed that he had fired the shots that killed 19-year-old Karen Summers in 1994, not Carpenter and Scott. Several other key witnesses recanted their testimony in the years since Summers died, and there was no physical evidence linking either Carpenter and Scott to the crime.
“No reasonable jury” would have convicted Carpenter and Scott of Summers’ murder if they’d been able to hear the testimony presented at January’s hearing, Holmes said. Her written order will be available at a later date, but Holmes said the court found “clear and convincing evidence” sufficient to overturn their conviction and that they are “actually innocent.”
Family members waited anxiously at the Tulsa Jail to see if Scott and Carpenter would be released Monday night. Scott had paperwork that needed to be cleared up regarding an old drug possession conviction he obtained while in DOC custody. Before release, Carpenter was required to post bond from an assault charge filed in March stemming from an unrelated incident at Tulsa Jail.
Their family poured out of the courtroom after Monday’s ruling with tears in their eyes, saying “God is good, all the time!” and hugging each other.
Scott was released first from the Tulsa Jail, walking down a long hallway holding hands with his attorneys, Josh Lee and Christina Green.
Lee is a private attorney who volunteered his time to work on the case. Green is the legal director for the Oklahoma Innocence Project, based at Oklahoma City University’s School of Law.
“It’s been a long journey. … My mother stood by me through it all,” Scott said, stooping down to hug his mother in her wheel chair.
Carpenter emerged less than an hour later to cheers and clapping from his waiting relatives, accompanied by Vicki Behenna, executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. Carpenter’s sister and mother ran to hug him, sobbing with joy.
At a hastily arranged press conference at the jail, both men spoke about their newfound freedom.
“It’s hard to express really how it feels,” Scott said. “There have been times that I thought, ‘Oh man, is it ever going to come?’ There have been times that I have wanted to give in. I had the blessing of a supportive family and friends who loved me, who’ve always been there in tough times.”
During the press conference, Eric Cullen, a Tulsa-based private investigator, stood by Scott’s side and wiped away tears. It was Cullen who first began investigating their case 10 years ago and convinced the Innocence Project to become involved.
“He took it on when we didn’t have nothing, when all I had was my words. … He believed in me and I appreciate him,” Scott said, hugging Cullen.
Carpenter greeted reporters with his arms around his fiancee and daughters.
“Every weekend they came to see me and kept my head right, kept me strong. I’ve waited a long time for this day, this moment.”
His advice to other convicted men and women who are innocent?
“Stay strong. You know over a decade ago, I started writing, literally writing, many organizations, athletes and celebrities. I even wrote President Obama and I got laughed at but I stayed strong and you know there’s actually innocent people in there.”
Carpenter said he hadn’t seen Scott since they were both convicted and sentenced to life.
“I haven’t talked to him in 19 years, but Malcolm, that’s my brother and I will do anything for him.”
A killer’s last confession
Both men said they were glad that Wilson finally told the truth about what happened that night.
“He stepped forward and he did what was right in the end and that’s what I am thankful for,” Scott said.
“He did what he did and I can’t speak why he did it,” Carpenter said. “Things happened and I’m just blessed to be living after all these years.”
Wilson was executed two years ago for the violent 1995 beating death of QuikTrip clerk Richard Yost.
But just days before his own death by lethal injection in 2014, Wilson wanted to right a wrong. Among his last words: “Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter are innocent.”
Scott and Carpenter weren’t even in the car when Wilson shot Summers, he said. But because he was already facing the death penalty in a separate case, he never spoke up.
Wilson said he regretted staying silent until it was clear his time was running out.
“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.”
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.
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 to testify against Carpenter and Scott, 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.
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.
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.
The District Attorney’s office told media outlets Monday it intends to appeal Holmes’ ruling. But it’s unlikely the appeal will have much success given the lack of evidence remaining in the case.
Cullen recalled how he first began helping Scott and Carpenter when they wrote him letters from prison. The private investigator 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.
“It’s been 10 years of very hard work,” he said.
Cullen began the case as a “fledgling private investigator” in 2006, who didn’t have any resources. Eventually, the Midwest Innocence Project got involved and it became the Oklahoma Innocence Project’s first official case in 2011.
Following the press conference, Scott and Carpenter feasted on barbecue with family and friends at Albert G’s downtown.
Scott marveled at modern life’s small conveniences: navigation help from Siri, the “backup camera” in Lee’s car and the bathroom’s hands-free paper towel dispenser.
What did they plan to do first?
“I am not sure yet,” Scott said laughing. “But I know I’m going to go get in a Jacuzzi.”
Carpenter, a lanky man who towered over his family and friends, said he figured he was too old to pursue some of the dreams of his youth.
“It’s obvious that I can’t pursue my NBA career. I think I’m going to be an actor, go to Hollywood.”