Correction: A photo caption incorrectly identified attorney Josh Lee. The caption has been updated.
Two men traded their prison uniforms for suits and emerged from the Tulsa Jail as free men Monday evening, 20 years into their life sentences.
Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter were released hours after a Tulsa County judge declared them innocent of a 1994 fatal drive-by shooting for which they were convicted at age 18.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re here. We made it,” said Scott, who was released first. “I’m just thankful for a second chance at life.”
“I waited a long time for this day,” Carpenter told reporters when he was released. “It’s just — it’s a wonderful day.”
Scott and Carpenter, now 39, were each sentenced to life plus 170 years after they were convicted of first-degree murder and related charges in a shooting that killed 19-year-old Karen Summers.
Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes granted their applications for post-conviction relief on Monday and declared them “actually innocent” based on new evidence that was not presented to the jury that found them guilty in 1995. Prosecutors said they intend to appeal the decision.
Scott and Carpenter filed the applications in February and March 2014. They had made unsuccessful appeals shortly after they were convicted.
The new evidence includes sworn statements from three men who claim to be the actual perpetrators of the drive-by shooting, as well as signed affidavits from eyewitnesses recanting what they testified at Scott and Carpenter’s trial.
Those statements emerged with the help of Tulsa private investigator Eric Cullen, who began investigating Scott and Carpenter’s case in 2006, and the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which picked up the case in 2011. The project is a legal clinic at the Oklahoma City University School of Law.
The shooting for which Scott and Carpenter were convicted was directed at a group of people outside at a house party in the 200 block of East 29th Street North on Sept. 10, 1994.
Michael Wilson initially faced a murder charge along with Scott and Carpenter, but his charge was reduced to accessory after the fact after he testified against them at a pretrial hearing.
On Jan. 7, 2014, Wilson confessed in a videotaped interview with an attorney from the Oklahoma Innocence Project that he had fired the fatal shots and that Scott and Carpenter were not involved.
Wilson was executed two days later for another murder, and among his last words, he again stated that Scott and Carpenter were innocent.
In the interview, Wilson named two others who had been in the vehicle with him: Billy Don Alverson and Richard Harjo.
Alverson and Harjo were also convicted of the 1995 murder for which Wilson was executed. Alverson was sentenced to death, and Harjo — 16 at the time — was sentenced to life without parole.
In 2010, Alverson sent letters to Scott and Carpenter stating that he had driven the vehicle in the drive-by shooting, Scott and Carpenter’s post-conviction-relief attorneys told Holmes at the hearing.
Alverson wrote to Scott and Carpenter that he would have told the court they hadn’t been in the vehicle when Wilson fired the shots, but he hadn’t been called to testify, the attorneys said.
Alverson was executed Jan. 6, 2011.
Harjo, the third to claim he was in the vehicle from which Wilson fired the shots, also stated that Scott and Carpenter were not involved.
Wilson fired the shots to retaliate against Hoover Crips members he believed had shot at him days before, Harjo testified at the January hearing.
Harjo said he was never contacted by police investigating Summers’ murder.
At Scott and Carpenter’s trial, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from two people who had been in the crowd at which the shots were fired, the attorneys told Holmes at the January hearing.
Those witnesses later recanted their testimony and signed affidavits in 2010 saying investigators had coerced them into testifying against Scott and Carpenter.
When Scott was released Monday, he told reporters he was grateful to the Oklahoma Innocence Project “for everything that they’ve done to give me my life back.”
As he embraced Cullen, who investigated the case pro bono, Scott said, “We did it, man.”
“(Cullen) took it on when we didn’t have nothing,” Scott told reporters.
Cullen described himself as a “fledgling private investigator” when he began looking into the case a year into his career.
“It’s been 10 years of very hard work and something I honestly probably thought would’ve never had a shot,” Cullen told reporters.
Oklahoma Innocence Project Legal Director Christina Green, who represented Scott’s post-conviction-relief case along with private attorney Joshua Lee, grew emotional as she explained that his was the second case she worked as an OCU law student in the legal clinic.
Scott and Carpenter’s case marks the project’s first exoneration.
Since the legal clinic opened in 2011, it has had more than 1,200 requests for assistance, said Executive Director Vicki Behenna.
“We’ve been able to narrow that down to about 440 cases that we believe might have merit,” Green said, adding that 130 are currently “waiting in line” as the clinic hopes to enlarge its staff.
“Oklahoma Innocence Project saved my life,” Scott told reporters. “They didn’t ask us for a dime, but they did it. … And I will make sure that everything I do in life from this point is to show that it was worth it.”
Carpenter advised others who might be serving prison time on wrongful convictions to “stay strong.”
“I’m just blessed to be living after all these years, because a lot of people didn’t make it out,” Carpenter told reporters. “There’s a lot of people that’s trapped in the system. I was one of the lucky ones, so I’m blessed, and I’m happy.”
At least 25 family members took turns embracing and posing for pictures with Scott and Carpenter after they were released, and at one point Carpenter’s mother clutched Scott’s mother’s hand as they watched.
They had described the exoneration as a late Mother’s Day gift.
“I’m having two Mother’s Days,” said Carpenter’s mother, Pamela Carpenter. “Yesterday was with my daughter and my son, and today is with my other son that’s missed a lot of Mother’s Days with me.”
At the courthouse after she learned that her son had been declared innocent, Scott’s mother, Ruthella Scott, told reporters through tears that she was “so happy” that she couldn’t “contain myself.”
“The gift came a day late, but she was excited about it,” Linda Scott, Malcolm Scott’s sister, said about their mother.