by Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter are in their early days of freedom after serving 20 years. The pair was wrongly convicted for the 1994 murder of Karen Summer.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project, based at Oklahoma City University, took the lead role in documenting their innocence and securing their release. The exonerations were the first-ever for the Project, which began to work for their release in 2011.
Supporters of Scott and Carpenter gathered in Tulsa for a joyful event marking their formal release.
“There are really no words to adequately describe this moment,” said Vicki Zemp Behenna, a former prosecutor who now serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
“Malcolm and De’Marchoe have spent more than half their lives behind bars for something they didn’t do. They have been waiting for this day; their families have been waiting for this day for 20-plus years. We are so grateful to Judge Holmes for righting this terrible wrong.”
In September 1994, the two teens were sentenced to life in prison for the Summers murder, even though a few hours after the crime police in Tulsa had found the weapon and vehicle used in the “drive-by” shooting under the control of a man named Michael Wilson.
According to a summary account from the Innocence Project, “On Jan. 7, 2014, just two days before his execution for another murder, Wilson confessed to the Project, and again in the execution chamber that he was actually the trigger-man and that Scott and Carpenter were not in the car with him.”
An evidentiary hearing was held on January 29. Richard Harjoe, the only living co-conspirator, told Judge Sharon Holmes that Wilson and another man, Billy Don Alverson, were – in the words of the project’s summary — “in the car together when Wilson killed Summers and wounded two others. Wilson and Alverson were both executed for their role in the murder of a QuikTrip store clerk in 1995. Harjoe was sentenced to life for his participation in that murder.”
“We have been working to free these two men for five years,” Christina Green, the Oklahoma Innocence Project’s legal director, said. “They have become part of our lives and we are privileged to be part of theirs. Malcolm and De’Marchoe’s futures start today and we are ecstatic to stand by them as they walk away from the past and start their lives as free men.”
The Oklahoma Innocence Project consists of legal staff and students at Oklahoma City University School of Law have investigated this case throughout the current decade. In a statement sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations, the Project leadership expressed gratitude for the hard work of attorneys Josh Lee and Ken Sue Doerful, who volunteered their legal expertise in the pursuit of the truth for Scott and Carpenter.”
Law School Dean Valerie K. Couch at OCU said, “This is such a powerful experience for our law students. They gain hands-on experience working with clients, while learning about the inner-workings of the criminal justice system. Students learn first-hand from the Project legal team and volunteer attorneys like Josh and Ken Sue.
“Through their experience in the Project, students unite their knowledge, skills and passion for justice in work that is real and life-changing for the wrongfully convicted like Malcolm and De’Marchoe.”
The work of the project at OCU is sustained entirely by private donations. Officials say “all of its legal services are offered at no charge to the client. From initial investigation to litigation, costs on each case mount. The Project hires experts, copies court documents, hires private investigators and travels to speak with witnesses, all in support of its clients.
Dean Couch said, “We are sincerely grateful for our supporters. Without you, we would not be here today. Malcolm and De’Marchoe would still be in prison for a crime they did not commit. Your generous financial support and friendship over the past five years led to the freedom of these two innocent men. On behalf of the law school, the Project staff and the families of Malcolm and De’Marchoe, thank you.”
In all, there have been 32 Oklahomans exonerated previously, with Michelle Murphy of Tulsa the most recent. Nationwide, a total of 1,782 exonerations have occurred since 1989. A press release from the OCU press office reported, “The main causes of wrongful conviction are eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated and improper forensic science, false confessions, informants, government misconduct and inadequate defense.”
Another case in litigation is that of Willard O’Neal. A brief for post-conviction relief was filed in June 2015, and, OCU says, “the team is waiting for an evidentiary hearing to be scheduled.”
Thus far, there have been 1,250 request for assistance submitted to the Oklahoma Innocence Project. “Aside from O’Neal’s case, which is in litigation, two are being investigated, 120 are waiting to be assigned and over 600 have been closed,” Project officials said.
Early this month, a bipartisan group of Oklahomans supportive of the project’s work came to the University of Oklahoma Faculty House near the state Capitol for a press conference.
Participants included Tim Durham, who was wrongfully convicted of a rape in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Joining him was Nancy Vollersten, whose brother (the late Greg Wilhoit) was wrongfully convicted of a murder in Tulsa. Christy Sheppard, cousin of murder and rape victim Debbie Carter, also addressed the meeting.
A retired Oklahoma Court of criminal appeals judge, Reba Strubhar, also participated in the briefing. Judge Stubhar is co-chairman of a group investigating Oklahoma’s troubled death penalty process, with an eye to make reform recommendations in 2017.
Dr. Larry Hellman, dean emeritus at the Oklahoma City University School of law, also spoke at the Faculty House event. Ms. Behenna also joined the event, at which the individuals thanked members of the state Legislature for enacting four historic criminal justice reforms during this year’s session.
As part of their continuing work, leaders of the project have underscored possible changes in law and police procedures that could reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions.
From the Oklahoma Innocence Project: The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law launched in August 2011. The Project is the only organization in Oklahoma dedicated to identifying and remedying cases of wrongful conviction in the state. Oklahoma City University School of Law students work with the Project legal staff to research and investigate the hundreds of cases received annually. The Oklahoma Innocence Project functions solely on private donations and provides all legal services at no charges to the client. For more information, visit innocence.okcu.edu.
From Oklahoma City University School of Law: Oklahoma City University School of Law is fully approved by the American Bar Association and is a member of the Association of American Law Schools. It serves a diverse student body of approximately 500. Oklahoma City University School of Law’s nearly 6,000 alumni practice in every state and several foreign countries. For more information, visit law.okcu.edu.