The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers

hands holding a skull

By G.W. Schulz and Joseph M. Norwood

In Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” a gang of outlaw insurgents plots to overthrow the government. They’re angered by the everyday oppression of everyday people. One of the subversives utters a line that will be popularly recited for centuries to come: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Although plainly written, the expression could be interpreted in one of two ways. It could mean to attack the privileged class and its protective ring of snarling attorneys. Or it could mean to kill the protectors of the rule of law who are seeking to safeguard the levers of power. 

Either way, it illuminates a maddening paradox in the legal system. At any given time, one lawyer somewhere in the world is seeking to undermine the law while another is seeking to shield it from harm. 

In this paradox of justice, both may view themselves as heroes and guardians. 

As legal professionals, we see such dualities dramatized in courtrooms every day. They’re visible elsewhere in America’s democratic institutions. Oklahoma judges are expected to rule impartially, yet they must run for election and appeal to voters. Republicans and Democrats are eternally adversarial and must impress constituents and special interests with partisan posturing.  

Heroes and villains

Cases we’ve handled at Norwood.Law call attention to the justice duality. Five of our clients (each of whom are black) were wrongfully convicted in four separate cases. Two clients were declared innocent last year in cases that earned us international media attention. 

These erroneous convictions led to 30 years in prison for Perry Lott, 28 for Corey Atchison, 20 for Demarchoe Carpenter and Malcolm Scott, and a mind-blowing 48 years for Glynn Simmons. Today, Simmons is entered into the National Registry of Exonerations as the longest-serving wrongfully convicted man in America.

The struggle of these men raises the question: Who’s the hero, and who’s the villain?

Paradox of justice

Other wrongful convictions have rocked Oklahoma in recent years, and there are some 3,500 entries in the National Registry of Exonerations as of this writing. For our five exonerated clients, lawyers were central to a grotesque perversion of justice where the powerless were railroaded by a system we’re tasked with protecting. 

Yet within the paradox of justice, it was lawyers who answered the call to zealously fight and restore the rule of law. In the Atchison, Lott, and Simmons cases, the details were remarkably similar. Prosecutors had no physical evidence whatsoever. They relied each time on just one problematic witness. 

In the Glynn Simmons case, the testifying witness had glanced at the perpetrators for just a few seconds, by her own admission, before she was shot in the head and survived. Over a dozen alibi witnesses on different occasions gave sworn testimony that on the night of the robbery, Simmons was in his hometown of Harvey, Louisiana, where he was affectionately known as “Nubs.” It was only later after the crime occurred and during the investigation that Simmons moved to Oklahoma City for a job.

A street robbery

Perry Lott spent 30 years in prison before DNA excluded him from the rape kit of a sexual assault that occurred in Ada, Oklahoma. Bill Peterson, the former Pontotoc County district attorney whose office sent Lott to prison, was responsible for convicting at least five other people who were later exonerated after years or decades spent locked up. Four of those cases became the subject of a bestselling book by John Grisham and a Netflix series.

Another Norwood.Law client, Corey Atchison, spent 28 years in prison before he was finally released in 2019. That’s when Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes concluded that Atchison did not shoot James Warren Lane during a street robbery on Aug. 3, 1990. The duality was there for all to see. Lawyers in the case had cast themselves as protectors of justice, law and order, and the people. But they were also seeking to boost their own careers at the expense of my client. 

Three eyewitnesses gave descriptions of the true shooter to police that didn’t match Corey. But there’s no evidence in available records that investigators ever meaningfully considered this alternate suspect. Three more witnesses recanted their statements that Atchison committed the crime. These witnesses said they had lied about Atchison’s role in the killing after authorities threatened and coerced them.

Toiled for freedom

Glynn Simmons was initially convicted of a 1974 robbery and murder and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court nullified Glynn’s death sentence in a series of cases that began with the seminal 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia. After hearing about my work for defendant Corey Atchison, Glynn contacted me and asked if I would represent him, too. After looking at Glynn’s case, I knew what I had to do.

Simmons heartbreakingly toiled for half a century in prison working to free himself. No one would listen. He filed numerous post-conviction appeals and writs of habeas corpus. With time, he grew to hate lawyers. After all, it was lawyers who were responsible for his decades of despair and anguish. But in Glynn’s paradox of reality, lawyers also became his close friends and saviors. Those of us who helped free him had also helped redeem the rule of law.

The story doesn’t end there. Norwood.Law is also representing two plaintiffs in a federal civil suit against the city of Tulsa and certain police officers. The plaintiffs are Malcolm Scott and Demarchoe Carpenter who spent 20 years in prison before a Tulsa judge concluded that they, too, had been wrongfully convicted. 

Two key witnesses – saying they were coerced by authorities – recanted their statements that Carpenter and Scott had committed a 1994 drive-by killing. A third man eventually confessed to carrying out the drive-by while two more men admitted to being in the car with him. In a stunning twist, one of the men who was wrongfully convicted in that case, Malcolm Scott, is the brother of our exonerated client Corey Atchison. 

Our clients know all about the justice paradox. 

Magical thinking

One important explanation for why wrongful convictions occur is cognitive biases in the human mind that affect everyone’s ability to form clear judgments. Cognitive biases persist largely without our conscious awareness of them and can lead us to interpret fallacies and illusions as real. Heroes can become villainous and villains can become noble.

Cognitive biases can lead to “magical thinking” or “thinking errors” that impair our ability to more fully and objectively understand the world around us. Such biases are exceedingly difficult to control. They cloud our better judgment and often work against our true desires. 

Scientists say confirmation bias and so-called “tunnel vision” help explain why investigators, prosecutors, judges, and juries can send people to prison or death row only for the defendant to be exonerated years or decades later. Who’s the hero, and who’s the victim?

Wisdom and compassion

At Norwood.Law, we see the duality that Shakespeare described in more than just criminal cases. The firm also practices family, business, personal injury, civil rights, estates, and more. And we’ve seen it all. 

In one of our triumphs, Norwood.Law persuaded the Oklahoma Supreme Court to throw out a state law that gave special treatment to the insurance industry. Other states had similarly passed such laws. Our client had been unfairly denied insurance compensation for a car accident that wasn’t her fault. 

In the paradox of justice, it was lawyers who elevated special interests above the public interest by helping to create the self-serving insurance law. Yet it was lawyers who challenged the law and got it knocked down. Other victories from our firm:

  • When an automated lawn mower hurt a child, the family enlisted Norwood.Law to negotiate a favorable settlement with the foreign manufacturer.
  • We took on powerful banking interests including the Bank of America to ensure consumers had a right to a jury trial following disputes over services. 
  • We secured one of the biggest-ever settlements for police excessive force in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
  • Underhanded denials and delays from insurance carriers threatened one of our cases. With skilled negotiating, Norwood.Law was able to get our client a significant recovery amount following a serious car accident.

So let’s reflect on Shakespeare. Maybe he observed the paradox of justice himself. Maybe he knew we all hated lawyers until we needed one. As law professionals, we each choose how to interpret Shakespeare’s famous line. Are we the protectors of the powerful at the cost of the powerless? Or are we the protectors of democracy and the rule of law? At Norwood.Law, we know the best answer for us. 

Joseph M. Norwood is a Tulsa attorney with the courtroom experience you need. Contact his office at 918-582-6464.