For 28 years, Corey Atchison sat in prison, arguing for his innocence. On Tuesday, it became a reality when a judge overturned his life sentence.
“Mr. Atchison, you are a free man,” Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes said.
Holmes said the case against Atchison was flawed. She called his case a “miscarriage of justice” that was full of faulty eyewitnesses and coerced testimony she said “appalled” her.
Atchison’s first-degree murder conviction was based solely on recanted witness testimony. Holmes took the extra step of declaring the man “actually innocent” of the 1990 fatal shooting of James Warren Lane.
Holmes announced her decision to a courtroom packed with Atchison’s family and friends, several months after an evidentiary hearing that explored flaws in the state’s case against Atchison.
Atchison was 20 when a jury convicted him in 1991. The state did not present any physical evidence at the trial connecting Atchison to the crime but relied on witness testimony. The key witnesses in the trial, who were juveniles at the time, have since recanted their testimony, which they say police coerced them into giving.
Holmes said the coercion of witnesses, as well as their ages (they were all between the ages of 15 and 17 at the time,) were some of the main issues she considered when deciding whether to overturn Atchison’s conviction. She pointed out the key witnesses in the case were children when they testified and were vulnerable.
Some were taken from school to be interviewed by police without their parents being notified. They were interrogated for hours, Holmes said.
“I did find they were coerced,” she said. “I was appalled at how these interviews went.”
“No reasonable jury” would have convicted Atchison if it were not for the testimony of the coerced witnesses, Holmes said. Holmes’ written order will be ready in September, but she said she did not want to delay her decision any longer.
Atchison’s family and friends poured out of the courtroom after Holmes’ decision on Tuesday. Some cheered, and others sobbed. “God is good,” one shouted.
Joe Norwood, Atchison’s attorney, stood outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse after the decision and talked to reporters.
“This is what we have worked many, many hours for years now,” he said. “Corey’s long nightmare is over, and it’s time to get on with life.”
Eric Cullen, a Tulsa-based private investigator, stood by Norwood’s side. He has been working with Atchison’s family for more than 12 years. Cullen and Norwood also worked on the case of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter, who had their first-degree murder convictions overturned in 2016. Scott is Atchison’s younger brother.
Scott and Carpenter served more than 20 years for a 1994 drive-by shooting they didn’t commit.
“The case has a lot of similarities, yes it does,” Cullen said of the three mens’ cases. “Really bad practices, and in hindsight, probably should not have been done.
“But the similarities in the way they used as the judge said, coercion of young, poor, black individuals is the same.”
Assistant Tulsa County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn sparred a bit with Holmes during Tuesday’s hearing, arguing she was not legally able to issue an actual innocence finding in a post-conviction relief hearing.
Holmes, who had issued the same finding in a similar overturned murder case in 2016, disagreed.
“I’ve done this before,” she repeatedly told Dunn. Dunn said following the hearing that he disagreed with its results and planned to appeal.
“While I respect her decision, I certainly disagree with it,” he said. “The role of a district court is not to sit as some kind of super appellate court …. Going back and looking behind the investigation and making a determination that in your view the individuals were coerced and interrogated … that is not something this court is supposed to do.”
While Holmes said she was “appalled” at several tactics used by the DA’s office back in 1991 to earn a conviction, Dunn said he stood by the way the office handled the case back then.
“I don’t have an issue with the tactics, if that’s what you want to call them,” Dunn said.
Tim Harris, a former longtime Tulsa County district attorney, attended Tuesday’s hearing and said he also disagreed with Holmes’ decision. Harris, who was the prosecuting attorney in Atchison’s case, also filed a three-page affidavit with Holmes to respond to allegations made by a witness in the case in a Tulsa World story last week.
“I respect the court’s decision, I disagree with it wholeheartedly,” Harris said. “I don’t believe the recantation is sufficient evidence. There are 12 jurors who listened to this evidence and found him guilty. I don’t believe in post-conviction relief the case is supposed to be retried.”
Current Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler issued a statement late Tuesday defending Harris and making it clear his office intends to appeal Holmes’ decision.
“The people who repeatedly elected Tim Harris as their District Attorney did so because he embodied integrity,” Kunzweiler wrote. “I came to work for Mr. Harris in 2002 because of his honesty and integrity. I have never had an occasion to call that into question. Mr. Harris signed and submitted an affidavit in this case which categorically refuted the unsubstantiated allegations against him. Twelve men and women listened to all of the evidence in this case and they rendered their judgment that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, 25 years after the fact, comes a single spurious claim which runs completely counter to the stellar reputation Mr. Harris developed over his entire lifetime. Suffice it to say, the State of Oklahoma will be appealing the ruling of Judge Holmes.”
After the hearing, as Atchison’s supporters’ celebrated, Malcolm Scott took a moment to reflect. It was just three short years ago that he was released after being imprisoned for two decades for a murder he didn’t commit.
“When we came out three years ago, I felt that feeling of excitement to be free,” Scott said. “But I always felt a piece of me was still in there. I never felt that feeling of completeness, and I knew I wouldn’t until I finally had my brother out here, too. Because I knew that just as innocent as I was, I knew he was innocent, as well.
“But today, when that verdict was made today, I felt it was finally complete.”
Scott said that he has learned “a whole lot” in the three years since he and Carpenter were freed from prison, and he thought he could help Atchison acclimate back into society.
“I think it’s really good that he has somebody already out here with so much support for him that’s going to help him make that transition,” Scott said.
Ben King, one of Atchison’s childhood friends, has always said he felt guilty for his role in Atchison’s conviction. During the evidentiary hearing earlier this year, a tearful King testified that he was coerced into telling police that Atchison was the killer.
King, who had been with Atchison the day Lane was killed, said police took him from school without his parents’ knowledge, drove him to the police station and questioned him for hours. They told King, who was 17 at the time, that he would be charged with murder if he didn’t say Atchison did the shooting.
So, King said during a January hearing, that’s what he told police.
“I figured it was a lie and it wasn’t going anywhere,” King testified earlier this year.
While announcing her decision on Tuesday, Holmes said she was moved by King’s testimony.
“That gave this court reason to wonder what really happened here,” she said.
On Tuesday, standing alone, away from the celebration going on outside the courthouse steps, King leaned against a pylon, smoking a cigarette. A speaker in his pocket was loudly playing “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.
Asked if he felt the burden he had carried for all these years was lifted, King lifted his right thumb and forefinger with just a slight distance between them.
“A little bit,” he said. “He deserves to be free.”
‘The truth is going to come out always in the end’
Atchison has always maintained he didn’t shoot James Warren Lane. In fact, he said he tried to help the man.
In his 1991 trial, Atchison testified he spent the night of Aug. 3, 1990, with three friends driving around north Tulsa in his ‘76 Oldsmobile.
In the early hours of the morning, the four men heard a gunshot ring out, Atchison said. When the car turned the street corner, its headlights illuminated a man lying near the curb.
Atchison backed his Oldsmobile into an apartment complex’s parking lot and the group walked over to the scene. The man appeared to be alive.
“There was some people, more people coming out,” Atchison testified. “you know, and I asked them, will somebody call the police or ambulance or something.”
The men stayed at the scene until police arrived and when the group returned to Atchison’s car, officers approached and searched them.
Atchison wasn’t treated as a murder suspect at the time. But on Feb. 11, 1991 — about six months later — Tulsa police asked him for a statement on the incident. A warrant was issued for his arrest that day.
By the time Atchison’s trial started, the state had only one witness who maintained he saw who shot Lane; 16-year-old Doane Thomas, a former Crip who said he saw a group of Bloods attack Lane.
“I seen Corey had the gun in his hand. He shot the man,” Thomas said on the witness stand at Atchison’s trial.
But even Thomas, the state’s key witness, eventually recanted his testimony decades later in 2017.
Other witnesses in the trial were multiple responding officers and Benjamin King — Atchison’s friend who testified police coerced him into giving a statement that Atchison shot Lane.
Since the 1991 trial, three people, including Thomas and King, have submitted affidavits stating Atchison didn’t shoot Lane.
In his affidavit, Thomas wrote: “I did not see who fired the shots that killed James Warren Lane but I know Corey Atchison did not kill Lane because he walked up on the scene afterwards calling out to people to call 911 to help Lane.”
Near the end of Atchison’s testimony in his 1991 trial, Tim Harris questioned his claim of innocence.
“It’s a fair statement that if the jury doesn’t believe you, you got a lot at stake because you’re going to the penitentiary. Is that a fair statement,” the man asked.
“Yes, it’s a fair statement,” Atchison said. “but the truth is going to come out always in the end.”
On Tuesday, Cullen recalled how he first got involved with Atchison’s case.
In January 2016, Cullen had just finished testifying in the evidentiary hearing of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter and went to find a spot on one of the wooden benches in a packed Tulsa County courtroom. As he approached a bench, a man scooted over to make room for him.
As Cullen sat down, the man looked at him and asked, “You ready for another one?” The other case the man on the bench told Cullen about was of Scott’s older brother, Corey Atchison.
“This is, you know, Malcolm and De’Marchoe’s case the investigation of that created awareness my lead to investigate Corey’s case,” Cullen said on Tuesday.
Norwood, Atchison’s attorney, got emotional as he reflected on Atchison’s case to reporters.
“Most of what helped him get through (his time in prison) was the thought of his mother. His daughter. His granddaughter,” he said, “This is what mattered the most.
“He was arrested three months before his daughter was born. He never got to spend any real time with her. He talks about her a lot. I can’t wait to get to see him hug her.”