Witnesses say Corey Atchison isn’t a killer. Will their testimony set him free?

Witnesses say Corey Atchison didn't kill James Lane in 1990. Many say they were coerced into lying. Other key witnesses were never called to testify at his trial.

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Stephanie Harris will never forget the man who shot and killed James Warren Lane on an early morning in north Tulsa 28 years ago.

She vividly remembers the man was “short,” about 5-foot-5, and slim. He wore a long T-shirt and jeans. His hair was short.

About six months after Lane died, Corey Atchison was arrested in connection with his death. In June of 1991, Atchison was convicted of first-degree murder.

Harris testified Thursday at an evidentiary hearing for Atchison, who is serving a life sentence for the shooting that killed Lane. Though she never saw the shooter’s face, Harris is certain of one thing: It wasn’t Atchison.

“When I found out about Corey (being convicted), I was like, ‘How could that be,” Harris said on the witness stand. “Corey Atchison is huge.”

Atchison stands at 6-foot-2 and weighed 220 pounds in 1990. And Harris, who was interviewed by a police officer the night Lane was shot, was never called to testify at Atchison’s trial.

Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes heard testimony from two witnesses on Thursday to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to throw out the conviction a jury gave Atchison in 1991.

The hearing is likely the first of at least two. Holmes said she must first consider testimony and review records from Atchison’s 1991 conviction in order to decide whether the case will move forward.

Atchison was 20 when a jury convicted him of a murder he and witnesses say he didn’t commit. 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, 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, would eventually recant 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.”

Thomas also testified at Atchison’s hearing on Thursday and told the court police “coerced” him into saying he saw Atchison kill Lane.

“He didn’t do this,” Thomas said. “It’s been 27 years of my life. … And that man did nothing. He was helping and calling for help.”

Atchison, who was sitting near his attorney, wiped away tears as Thomas spoke.

Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dunn asked why the court should believe Thomas when he had told several different stories of what happened since the shooting.

“You got a man in there who didn’t do anything,” Thomas told Dunn during testimony.

“According to you,” he answered.

But the state largely depended on Thomas’ testimony to convict Atchison.

Police ‘coerced’ witness testimony

DeMacio McClendon was 15 when he testified at Atchison’s preliminary hearing on March 25, 1991. The teen hesitated on the stand, and prosecutors often had to repeat a question up to four times before he would answer.

McClendon said he saw Atchison and three other men get out of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, then punch and kick Lane before the shooting.

At the preliminary hearing, a prosecutor asked McClendon whether he told that to a Tulsa police detective. “Yup. He threatened me to say it,” McClendon said.

During cross-examination, public defender Rob Nigh, who died in 2017, asked the teen why he said he was threatened.

“He (a detective) threatened me to say Corey did it, shot the man,” McClendon said.

Detectives came to McClendon’s school and took him to the police station for questioning, the youth testified.

“I told them to call my mama,” he said. “They didn’t call her.”

McClendon testified he wasn’t even in the area the night Lane was shot and that a detective threatened him with jail unless he said he saw Atchison murder the man. Thomas told police he was with McClendon that night, but later admitted he lied in an attempt to protect his pregnant girlfriend who was in the area during the shooting.

McClendon was never called as a witness to testify in front of jurors in Atchison’s trial.

Thomas, who was 17 at the time, did not give a statement to police until six months after the shooting. During Atchison’s trial, the teen said he decided to go to detectives because someone tried to shoot him while he was at his girlfriend’s house. He said police offered protection.

King was 17 when he testified in Atchison’s trial that he was also coerced into saying Atchison killed Lane.

“That whole tape was lies,” King said of his recorded statement at the trial.

King said police “made” him say it, and that they wouldn’t let him leave.

“I swear to God they had me down there just breaking me down,” King said on the witness stand. “and I tried to leave, and I told you they wouldn’t let me — like I told you, they told me to sit down.”

King added: “They kept saying, just book him (King) in jail for first-degree murder.”

Prosecution alluded to gang violence

Throughout the 1991 trial and in closing arguments, assistant district attorney Tim Harris alluded to the topic of Tulsa’s gang violence. Similar to many cities at the time, Tulsa was not immune to the violence between the Hoover 107 Crips, the Red Mob and other gangs that often dominated news headlines.

Atchison’s application for post-conviction relief states prosecutors introduced alleged gang affiliations connected to Atchison and his friends that implied they were guilty by affiliation.

Harris repeatedly referred to Atchison by his street name, “Cheese.” In closing arguments, the prosecutor told jurors about the area where the shooting took place, calling it a neighborhood “not like yours or mine.” He also instructed witnesses show their gang tattoos to jurors.

Harris told jurors that while talking to a detective about the case, the detective told him, “‘I grew up in that neighborhood, but, boy, it sure has disintegrated.'”

He added: “Right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a different world. With different kinds of people who live different lifestyles.”

In his closing argument’s, Atchison’s attorney Chris Grant, who died in 2016, said the state presented “the evidence of two admitted liars. One, an admitted gang member, and the other, a scared kid.”

There was no gun recovered from the crime.

After deliberations, the jury returned a guilty verdict: Atchison received a life sentence with the possibility of parole. That was the only punishment option the judge offered.

Two convictions in one family
In January 2016, Eric Cullen stepped off the stand 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?”

Eric Cullen speaks after an evidentiary hearing in 2016. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Cullen, a Tulsa-based private investigator, had just testified in the evidentiary hearing of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter. The two men, whose convictions were overturned in 2016, served more than 20 years for a 1994 drive-by shooting they didn’t commit.

The other case the man on the bench told Cullen about? Scott’s older brother, Corey Atchison. Both Scott and Carpenter sat in the first row at the hearing on Thursday.

Within two days, Cullen and Tulsa attorney Joe Norwood, who represents Atchison, were at Atchison’s mother’s house talking about the case.

The judge is set to make a decision in November on whether the case will continue.

Near the end of Atchison’s testimony in his 1991 trial, 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.”

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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