An Oklahoma man was freed Tuesday after serving nearly 30 years in prison for a murder a judge said he did not commit — the second member of his family to have a wrongful conviction overturned.
Corey Atchison, 48, walked out of a Tulsa court a free man, 28 years after he was convicted of shooting James Lane during a robbery in 1990. District Judge Sharon Holmes found that his case was marred by a “fundamental miscarriage of justice,” according to people who were in the courtroom and local reports.
Malcolm Scott, Atchison’s younger brother, had a murder conviction in an unrelated case overturned by Holmes in 2016.
“Corey was arrested three months before his daughter was born; this is the first time he’s been able to have some real contact with her and the same with his 10-year-old grandson,” his lawyer Joseph Norwood told The Washington Post. “I’m very proud to have vindicated them and reunited them.”
Atchison was convicted in 1991, at age 20, in the slaying. Lane was shot in the chest with a pistol the previous summer.
Atchison was in the area with friends at the time of the shooting and was arrested six months later. He maintained his innocence during the trial, an assertion bolstered by a witness who testified that he had been coerced into implicating Atchison, according to news reports. But Atchison’s conviction was upheld by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994.
Private investigator Eric Cullen started looking into the case after working to overturn Atchison’s younger brother’s conviction. After Cullen testified in hearings for that case, an old friend of Atchison told Cullen he should look into the older brother’s.
Cullen said he found his first break the next day after going through transcripts of the trial and preliminary hearings. A man testified during one of the hearings that prosecutors had bullied him into implicating Atchison, according to court transcripts that Cullen found, he said.
But the judge allowed the case to proceed, and the witness did not testify to Atchison’s innocence at the trial.
“I’ve done this a long time,” Cullen told The Post. “I’ve never heard of this or seen that. On the record, 1991, a 15-year-old standing up to an extremely aggressive DA who had just bullied him in the hallway.”
The man was one of multiple witnesses who signed affidavits for Cullen and Atchison’s lawyer. A key eyewitness recanted his testimony, saying he falsely implicated Atchison because of bad blood over unrelated disagreements. That person also said he was pressured to identify Atchison, Cullen said.
“This court thinks the purported eyewitnesses who were used were coerced,” Holmes said, according to the Tulsa World. “Without those witnesses, I don’t think a jury would have found Mr. Atchison guilty of this crime.”
Video published by the newspaper showed Atchison walking out of the courtroom to the sound of cheers.
“You just move on, keep going, that’s the only way you’re going to make it,” Atchison told reporters. “I can’t hold no grudge. Life’s too short.”
Tim Harris, who was the district attorney during Atchison’s prosecution, said he disagreed with the ruling and denied claims that misconduct had marred the trial, calling claims of witness coercion “absurd.”
Atchison’s brother Scott’s conviction dates to the mid-1990s. He and De’Marchoe Carpenter were convicted of a drive-by shooting that killed 19-year-old Karen Summers in 1994, when they were both 18. But a man who testified against the pair during the trial later admitted his own guilt, two days before he was to be executed for another murder, according to the Tulsa World. He, not Scott, had fired the fatal shots, he said.
Atchison and Scott, who were together after Atchison’s release, did not return calls for comment.
Cullen said the cases had one common element: a former detective who the lawyer said coerced witnesses. Cullen noted a spate of convictions with long sentences that have been overturned in Oklahoma in recent years and said he expected more to be reversed.
Oklahoma ranked sixth in exonerations per capita, according to an analysis of data from 1989 to 2012 done by the University of Michigan Law School.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler did not respond to requests for comment. But he issued a statement Tuesday defending the work of Harris, the district attorney during Atchison’s trial.
“Mr. Harris signed and submitted an affidavit in this case which categorically refuted the unsubstantiated allegations against him,” he said in a statement sent to news outlets. “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.”
Atchison’s lawyer Norwood said his client is considering a lawsuit over his conviction and lengthy incarceration.