“It was like, ‘Damn, are they going to let me die in here?’”
It’s been 90 minutes since De’Marchoe Carpenter arrived at his attorney’s office on Thursday, and there’s still no word from Malcolm Scott.
Suddenly his phone rings. “Yeah,” Carpenter says. “Yeah. No mom, Malcolm’s not even here.”
Carpenter hangs up the phone and turns to Dan Smolen, his attorney.
“Malcolm is always running late,” he says.
“Maybe,” Smolen deadpans, “that’s how he’s exercising his freedom.”
In May, Carpenter and Scott were released from prison after serving more than 20 years for a murder they didn’t commit. That followed a January evidentiary hearing that looked at several flaws in the case against the two men.
Shortly before being executed in 2014, 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 or Scott to the crime.
The case against the two men started to unravel 10 years ago, when a private investigator from Tulsa named Eric Cullen began looking into their convictions.
Scott and Carpenter wager they each wrote more than 1,000 letters from their prison cells, and word eventually got to Cullen, who later convinced the Oklahoma Innocence Project to begin investigating, as well.
On Thursday, the Court of Criminal Appeals handed down a unanimous finding of actual innocence. In it, the judges wrote that they agreed with the decision to release Scott and Carpenter.
“The State’s case at trial was weak and the evidence and circumstances that have been developed and presented to the trial court at this hearing do nothing to strengthen the State’s position.”
The ruling was necessary because after the pair was released from prison, the Tulsa County District Attorneys Office filed a motion to put them right back behind bars.
“But now that’s behind us,” Carpenter said.
The appeals court’s decision was expected, but neither Scott nor Carpenter wanted to take it for granted.
“I was calling (Smolen) all the time, asking him, ‘Is it going to be soon, is it going to be soon?’” Carpenter said.
Scott said he tried not to worry, but the idea that he could be granted freedom, then “snatched up” and sent back to prison always nagged at him.
The six months since their release have been busy. Both have found jobs and have begun taking college classes. Carpenter bragged that he had gotten his driver’s license and a car. Scott, a chiseled rock of muscle, said he’d started taking personal trainer classes.
Finally, Scott arrives. He had been assembling some workout equipment and hadn’t heard his phone ringing.
Thursday was a bright spot for both exonerees, a light at the end of a two-decade tunnel. Even though they’ve technically been free since May, the felony charge still existed on their record.
But Thursday’s ruling changed that, and now both men said they felt like they could do anything they wanted.
“I’ve never traveled,” Carpenter said. “I’ve never been out of Oklahoma. I’m 39 years old and I want to enjoy some time for myself. I’ve thought about just driving until I find a spot I like, then just stopping and living there. What’s going to stop me?”
Scott said the only time he’d been outside of Oklahoma was on a recent trip to Dallas. On the way there, he drove past Mack Alford Correctional Center, where he’d been imprisoned.
The prison is a symbol of a system that failed him, but he doesn’t hold onto any bitterness. And both men said they fought to stay positive in prison, because they knew they would need to stay productive if they were ever going to get out.
“What’s to be bitter about? I got my life now,” Carpenter said. “Be bitter and I’d end up right back in that place.”
But they both admitted that staying strong in the face of life sentences wasn’t easy. It’s a far bigger challenge when you’re innocent, both men said.
“I don’t think anyone enjoys their time in prison,” Scott said, “no matter if they’re innocent or guilty. But to be in there and to know that you’re innocent, it’s like it doubles up. You start to think, ‘This is all I’m ever going to see, forever, is pain.’”
“I think it’s harder to be in there for something you didn’t do,” Carpenter said. “I was in there and I knew I didn’t do what they said I did, and those are years I’ll never get back.”
He was actually granted parole on two separate occasions, but both times the governor wouldn’t grant his release. It was then that he thought about giving up.
“It was like, ‘Damn, are they going to let me die in here?’” he said.
But now that he’s free, he tries to enjoy the little things, like sitting outside with his dog, or doing the dishes. He said he’s writing a book about his experiences and hopes to get that published.
And he wants to go to an Oklahoma City Thunder game. During a television interview on Thursday he pleaded with Thunder guard Russell Westbrook to give him and Scott tickets.
“Come on Russell,” he said. “Courtside seats!”
The transition back to everyday life hasn’t been easy. While both are working, they are still seeking higher-paying jobs, and have recently gotten their forklift licenses. When they got out of prison they had nothing, so the coming winter months mean they’re scrambling for bulkier clothing.
But the changing seasons don’t come without at least one benefit.
“I never had a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal while I was locked up,” Carpenter said. “They would do a meal but I didn’t want it, I wanted to wait till I was home with my family.”
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