‘Casualties of This System’
Lawsuit: Police Used Coercion and Hid Evidence to Wrongfully Convict Seven People
Malcolm Scott was exonerated after 22 years in prison. Now he says other innocent people were convicted of murder, rape and armed robbery because of Tulsa police tactics.
Malcolm Scott spent the past 22 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Now he’s suing the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, alleging its police force has coerced confessions from witnesses that sent at least seven innocent people to prison—including himself and his brother.
Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter were 17 years old in September 1994 when cops arrested them in connection to a drive-by shooting that killed Karen Summers, the young mother of a 4-month-old baby. Scott and Carpenter didn’t see life outside a prison cell until last year, when a judge ruled they’d been wrongfully convicted.
As The Daily Beast reported Thursday, prosecutors relied heavily on two eyewitnesses, who were rival gang members and who recanted their testimony years later. The witnesses claimed cops threatened them with murder charges if they didn’t point the finger at Scott and Carpenter.
The federal complaint, filed by Scott and Carpenter this week against the city of Tulsa, also names former Detectives Mike Huff and Gary Meek as defendants. The Tulsa Police Department declined to comment.
Huff visited the actual killer, Michael Lee Wilson, one day after the Summers shooting. The cop found Wilson with the murder weapon and getaway vehicle used to kill Summers—yet Huff did not consider Wilson a main suspect.
Instead, Wilson was released on bond after agreeing to testify against Carpenter and Scott in the Summers case. While he was out, Wilson went on to brutally murder a 30-year-old father and night clerk at a convenience store.
When reached by phone, Huff said: “I just got sued in federal court over this deal, so I don’t have a thing to tell you. Thanks. Goodbye!” before hanging up.
Meek is accused of coercing the witnesses to testify against Scott and Carpenter and did not return calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the city said officials do not comment on pending litigation.
“The rise in gang violence and the pressure to increase conviction rates forced changes in the conduct of prosecutors and police alike,” the lawsuit says. “And this led to cutting corners and an attitude of get the ‘bad guy’ by any means necessary.
“Unfortunately, all too often, the ‘means’ were unconstitutional, and innocent citizens... became casualties of this system.”
The lawsuit comes at a time when Tulsa law enforcement is under national scrutiny. In May of this year, police officer Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher. Crutcher, who police say had PCP in his system when he encountered officers, had his hands up when Shelby shot him next to his stalled vehicle last September.
In April 2015, a volunteer deputy for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office shot and killed an unarmed suspect in a gun-buy sting operation. The reserve deputy, Bob Bates, said he mistook his gun for a Taser. He was convicted of manslaughter one year later.
The lawsuit claims Tulsa police had a custom of fabricating evidence, failing to investigate other leads, and withholding exculpatory material from defendants. And the department failed to train, supervise, and discipline officers like Huff and Meek, the complaint states.
Scott and Carpenter are seeking damages in excess of $75,000. They accuse the city of a slew of civil rights violations, including: evidence suppression; depriving them of due process; malicious prosecution; and civil conspiracy to deprive them and other unnamed defendants of their constitutional rights.
The city’s “unconstitutional” policies led to the wrongful convictions of Scott and Carpenter, and at least four other people, the lawsuit alleges. Scott and Carpenter “were not isolated victims” and even though other problematic cases were brought to the city’s attention, it “failed to take appropriate remedial measures to prevent this unconstitutional conduct from continuing,” the complaint alleges.
According to the lawsuit, Tulsa detectives coerced witnesses, victims, and suspects into false statements during police interviews. Then cops would record “only the rehearsed, coerced” portions of those interviews in police reports.
Kenneth Price, a witness who identified Scott and Carpenter as the shooters, later recanted his testimony. He said detectives coerced his testimony by suggesting he would be charged with the Summers murder himself.
At a 2016 evidentiary hearing, Price was asked whether he ever saw anyone in the vehicle during the drive-by.
“No, I didn’t, which is what I was trying to tell the police all along, you know, and they pretty much coerced us into saying [Scott and Carpenter were in the vehicle]… tell us to say we seen it even if we didn’t see it,” Price testified.
Transcripts of a police interview reveal Price told Detective Meek that his back was toward the car and that he turned around at the sound of gunshots.
“Ken, you sure you didn’t see who was in that car?” Meek asked, according to a transcript of his interview with Price.
“I didn’t see who was in the car for sure…” Price replied.
The lawsuit also takes aim at Detective Meek’s interview of Rashun Williams, who would also recant his testimony identifying the shooters, and accuses Meek of “heavy prompting” to obtain answers.
“Could he have been like… could he have been in the middle of the front seat sticking the gun out the back window?” Meek asked of Scott, according to a transcript of the tape-recorded interview.
“Could. I mean, you know,” Williams replied.
“Or could he have been… was [he] in the back seat?”
“He… well, anything’s possible,” Williams said.
The complaint says that exchange “highlights the patent unreliability of the interview.”
“These recorded, coerced statements would then be used in furtherance of wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions,” the lawsuit states, adding that TPD also employed confidential informants to provide false testimony.
Daniel Smolen, an attorney for Scott and Carpenter, said they want to ensure no other person is forced to endure the pain of being wrongfully convicted.
“Our system of law must have the capacity to correct grave errors. The case of Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter involves such a grave error; it is a shameful injustice,” Smolen told The Daily Beast.
“We have filed this lawsuit to rectify a terrible wrong. Malcolm and De’Marchoe spent over 20 years in prison for crimes they did not commit,” Smolen said, adding, “To make matters worse, this injustice was not the mere consequence of an innocent error. Rather, Malcolm and De’Marchoe were arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned as a direct result of unconstitutional misconduct.”
Scott and Carpenter want to expose the facts not only in their case, but the cases of many other wrongfully convicted people “who fell victim to, what we believe to be, unconstitutional law enforcement policies and customs,” Smolen said.
“The sheer number of wrongful convictions and exonerations in Tulsa County is deeply troubling and unacceptable,” he added. “We want to get to the root causes of these wrongful convictions in hopes that the same mistakes will not be repeated.”
The lawsuit highlights the cases of four other Tulsa exonerees, as well as Scott’s brother, who is fighting for his freedom.
One Family, Two Convictions
Scott’s older brother, Corey Atchison, is serving a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He filed court papers in Tulsa County last week, requesting a judge grant him a new jury trial or vacate his conviction on the grounds that he’s actually innocent.
In August 1990, 29-year-old James Warren Lane was shot and killed on a Tulsa street. Atchison was arrested and charged six months later.
“There is no trustworthy evidence linking Mr. Atchison to the murder of Mr. Lane. None,” Atchison’s attorney, Joseph Norwood, says in an application for post-conviction relief.
“The only such ‘evidence’ that ever existed was manufactured through improper, unethical and unconstitutional interrogation tactics,” Norwood wrote. He added that Atchison has spent 26 years behind bars for a crime he never committed, an injustice that “only occurred by way of the coercion of a few scared kids.”
According to the complaint, one witness interviewed by Detective Meek recanted his testimony during a preliminary hearing, while a second recanted on the witness stand during trial. The third and lone eyewitness, Doane Thomas, recently recanted in a sworn affidavit, saying Meek and another detective, Robert Jackson, as well as Assistant District Attorney Tim Harris “threatened and coerced him” into giving false statements.
Multiple witnesses at the crime scene identified the shooter to be someone other than Atchison, but they were never called to testify at trial, the complaint alleges.
The Tulsa Police Department didn’t discipline, counsel, or provide remedial training for Detectives Meek and Jackson after the allegations of witness coercion were exposed in court, the lawsuit states.
The city failed to make changes to TPD’s training and investigative techniques, “thereby ratifying and tacitly condoning” the officers’ misconduct and encouraging other cops to deploy similar methods of police work, the complaint alleges.
Lost and Found Evidence
In April 1995, two robbers in ski masks broke into Shemita Greer’s Tulsa apartment, then pistol-whipped her and duct-taped her eyes and mouth.
During the robbery, the men kicked the 23-year-old Greer in the head and snatched $397 from her purse, along with four tires and wheel-rims. She played dead during the incident, which lasted under 10 minutes, and called police after they left.
Greer told cops the taller suspect was Sedrick Courtney, an acquaintance she’d known for three years. She recognized him under a black ski mask and heard his voice, she said.
Courtney was arrested two months later and charged with robbery and burglary. A second suspect was never identified or charged.
The perps left behind two ski masks—one green and one black—inside Greer’s apartment, and cops sent several hairs recovered from those masks to TPD’s forensic lab for DNA testing. The results were inconclusive.
A crime lab analyst testified, however, that a bleached red hair found in the green ski mask was microscopically consistent with a red bleached hair taken from Courtney. This finding contradicted Greer’s claim that the mask Courtney wore was black, not green. To address this inconsistency, prosecutors argued at trial that Courtney could have owned and worn both masks prior to the robbery.
Courtney had an alibi in the form of three relatives, who testified that he borrowed a car to attend a class at an unemployment center at the time of the crime. But it wasn’t enough to stop a jury from convicting Courtney of armed robbery and burglary in February 1996. He was sentenced to 30 years behind bars.
In 2000, Courtney sought DNA testing on the hairs, but the Tulsa Police Department said the samples had been destroyed.
One year later, Courtney contacted the Innocence Project for help. In 2007, an Innocence Project lawyer sent a letter requesting a search for the hairs, masks, and duct tape from the scene. Still, TPD again said the evidence had been destroyed.
Courtney, who served more than 16 years in prison, was paroled in June 2011. Three months later, a law student working for the Innocence Project called TPD to ask about the evidence again. This time, cops said they still had the hair slides.
DNA testing excluded Courtney from hairs found in both masks. Nine of 10 hairs found in the black mask matched the same person, and four of five hairs from the green mask also came from the same individual, court papers state.
Courtney was exonerated in July 2012. Two years later, he filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, alleging that a detective coerced the victim into implicating Courtney.
Courtney’s lawsuit was settled for $8 million in October 2015.
Convicted by a Hair
In 1993, Tim Durham was wrongfully convicted for the rape of an 11-year-old girl near the pool of her family’s Tulsa home.
Hair and semen evidence was inconclusive, and the victim’s description of the attacker did not match Durham, the lawsuit says. But TPD focused on Durham, whose rap sheet included firearms and parole violations.
At trial, a forensic analyst testified that Durham’s hair was microscopically similar to hairs found at the scene. The analyst suggested the follicle sets matched because he found similarities he’d seen in “less than 5 percent” of samples he had examined.
Durham presented 11 witnesses who placed him at a skeet shooting competition in Dallas, Texas, at the time of the rape, but a jury wasn’t swayed. He was sentenced to more than 3,100 years for multiple charges including first-degree rape, forcible sodomy, and attempted robbery.
Durham was exonerated in 1997 after the Innocence Project requested DNA testing of evidence from the scene. Semen results showed a convicted rapist named Jess Garrison committed the crime.
In 1987, a 20-year-old woman was attacked at the Tulsa laundry where she worked, then driven to a secluded area and raped.
The victim identified Arvin Carsell McGee from a photographic lineup four months after the crime. She had initially picked another man in the array two months after the incident.
McGee was convicted in 1989 after three trials and sentenced to 365 years behind bars. The first trial was a mistrial, while the second ended in a deadlocked jury.
“Mr. McGee’s conviction was ultimately based on the TPD officers’ fabrication of the victim’s identification of him,” the lawsuit states.
According to his attorneys, McGee wasn’t physically capable of committing the crime because of a severe groin injury and surgery that would have “severely hampered” his ability to pick up the woman and assault her.
In 2002, DNA testing of semen evidence revealed McGee was not the perpetrator. Tulsa County prosecutors ordered a second round of DNA testing but the results were the same.
McGee, who was incarcerated for 12 years for a crime he never committed, was freed that year. DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator: Edward Alberty, an Oklahoma inmate whose rap sheet included convictions for robbery and sodomy.
In 2006, the city of Tulsa agreed to pay McGee $12.5 million, after a jury found the city violated his constitutional rights.
The Wrong Blood Type
Michelle Murphy was 17 years old when she found her 15-week-old son, Travis, stabbed to death and nearly decapitated in her kitchen.
Tulsa cops responded to the call at 6 a.m. that day in September 1994. By 2 p.m., police said Murphy had confessed to killing her baby.
According to police, Murphy said she accidentally stabbed Travis while holding a knife and fighting with another woman. The supposed murder weapon, however, was never found at the scene.
Tulsa Detective Mike Cook only recorded the last 20 minutes of the interrogation, the lawsuit states. He questioned Murphy alone for eight hours, despite Oklahoma law barring authorities from interrogating minors without a parent or guardian present, according to the complaint.
Police later discovered that a 14-year-old neighbor, William Lee, called 911 at 3 a.m. and reported Murphy and her husband were quarreling in their home. Lee told Detective Cook that he was walking around the neighborhood because he couldn’t sleep. After he dialed 911, he left his apartment again around 4:30 a.m. to walk past Murphy’s townhouse.
Lee claimed that when he peered through holes in her kitchen blinds, he could see the baby in a pool of blood and Murphy’s blood-speckled arms. Despite this horrific scene, Lee said he went home and didn’t call police.
The witness testified at a preliminary hearing but was dead by Murphy’s trial in November 1995. Authorities said he died from autoerotic asphyxiation. (Murphy’s attorneys argued Lee was the real killer, though post-conviction DNA testing showed neither Murphy nor Lee was the source of unknown blood found at the scene.)
According to the lawsuit, prosecutors relied on a tape-recording of Lee’s testimony at trial, Murphy’s confession, and testimony from a crime lab analyst, who argued certain blood samples didn’t match the baby.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Tim Harris said Murphy’s blood was present at the scene and proof that she murdered her son. “Ladies and gentleman, beyond a reasonable doubt this woman killed her child,” Harris told jurors, according to the Tulsa World.
Murphy was found guilty in November 1995 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Her then-2-year-old daughter was put up for adoption.
But one of Murphy’s teachers believed she was innocent, and in 2011, persuaded Tulsa lawyers to investigate her case. Those attorneys discovered that the district attorney knew the blood found at the scene, type AB, could not have come from Murphy or Travis.
They also learned Detective Cook—who testified that he’d never coerced false testimony—had obtained a false confession from a teenage murder-arson suspect only six years earlier. (Cook denied coercing the confession, but a judge barred the testimony in court, Tulsa World reported at the time.)
In May 2014, DNA testing revealed blood stains at the crime scene matched the profile of an unknown male, and Harris agreed to vacate Murphy’s conviction.
In September 2015, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, District Attorney Harris, and a list of law enforcement officers including Detective Cook. The lawsuit—which is still pending—alleges Cook coerced a confession from Murphy that “had no basis in reality” and which “Cook knowingly used” to arrest her.
“Det. Cook prompted and threatened Ms. Murphy into stating she was in a ‘dream’ and she ‘accidentally fell’ and, if Cook is credited, she accidentally cut through the bone, gristle and sinew of her infant son’s neck,” the complaint states.
Murphy’s lawsuit accused Cook of being “a seasoned homicide detective who had a reputation with his peers and supervisors for cutting corners by forcing confessions.”