Tulsa location where James Warren Lane was murdered in 1990.
By G.W. Schulz
Wayne Jones is the one who pulled the trigger. He’s the one who did the killing.
That’s what a tipster calling herself “Lisa” told Det. Ken Makinson of the Tulsa Police Department during a call on Aug. 7, 1990. The tip came just days after police had responded to the shooting death of a young man at East 4th Street and South Atlanta Avenue in Tulsa’s Kendall-Whittier neighborhood east of downtown.
The victim’s name was James Warren Lane. Witnesses said there was a confrontation with a group of males, and Lane was robbed and shot to death. The perpetrators ran from the scene as Lane was left stretched out on the ground and choking on his own blood as the life left his body.
In addition to “Lisa” giving a name, two other witnesses would provide descriptions to police of the man they believed was the killer. Those descriptions roughly matched the height and weight at the time of a lifelong criminal named Wayne Raymone Jones whose offenses included armed robbery.
Yet there’s no evidence in available records that investigators ever meaningfully pursued Jones as a suspect, Norwood.Law learned after becoming involved in the case. Instead, they seized on someone else who didn’t match the descriptions given by witnesses. That someone was our client, Corey Dion Atchison. He was blamed for the killing of James Lane and wrongfully spent 28 years in prison. But the case against Atchison began to unravel on the very night of Lane’s murder:
- No physical evidence of any kind ever tied Atchison to the shooting.
- One eyewitness repeatedly told authorities that Atchison had arrived on the scene only after the shooting and that he yelled for someone to call 911.
- Atchison and three friends waited for police to arrive and hung around the crime scene for two hours. A search of them by police that night turned up nothing.
- Three teenaged witnesses recanted their testimony that Atchison was the killer and said they were coerced by Tulsa law enforcement. Two recanted on the witness stand.
- Atchison was convicted with the testimony of just one eyewitness who recanted 26 years later.
The report from “Lisa” specifically identifying Wayne Jones as the shooter and not Atchison was only unearthed in 2018 by Norwood.Law 27 years after he was convicted of murder. There’s no telling how long Atchison would have languished behind bars if Norwood.Law hadn’t stepped in to help uncover the truth. Continue reading below to learn the extraordinary story of how Corey Atchison never lost hope – and how Norwood.Law stood by his side.
Are you facing jail or prison time due to accusations by the government? Are you entangled in a civil dispute involving marriage, family, business, or personal-injury law? Contact Norwood.Law right away for a free consultation. We have a proven track record of aggressively representing the interests of our clients in court. Norwood.Law will bring the same level of skill and commitment to your legal conflict that we did to the case of Corey Atchison.
‘Lisa’ identifies suspect
The pursuit of Atchison began in earnest four days after Lane’s shooting death when “Lisa” contacted Det. Makinson of the Tulsa Police Department with knowledge of the incident. Lisa wouldn’t give her full name, but another witness said a “Lisa” was at the scene.
In one report memorializing the call with Lisa, police say she identified four “subjects” who were involved in the case. The first was Wayne Raymone Jones. The second was Reginald Lamont Patterson, who was “with Wayne Jones” when the robbery and shooting happened, the report states. The third and fourth subjects mentioned were Andre Lamont Green and our client, Corey Dion Atchison.
This first report would be the only one police eventually turned over to Atchison’s defense before trial about “Lisa” and her call to police. In this particular report, Lisa does not explicitly name a gunman.
But nearly three decades later in 2018 after Atchison was thrown in prison, Norwood.Law uncovered a very different report about what Lisa told police that day. In it, Lisa specifically named Wayne Jones as the shooter of James Lane and said that Reginald Patterson participated in the robbery.
According to this second report, Corey Atchison was “with” Wayne Jones and Reginald Patterson along with the unknown Andre Green when Lane was killed. But it’s not clear whether Lisa actually saw Atchison arrive on the scene after the shooting to try and help, which is what other witnesses would later maintain.
In fact, there are questions about the reliability of some of the police statements in their own reports. Another eyewitness, for example, said that police accurately documented her physical description of the killer in one report. But she said other facts in that same report were simply wrong.
Not to mention, the city of Tulsa now admits that recordings for at least two witness interviews have vanished. One interview was with the only witness to ultimately testify against Atchison in court – a witness who then recanted some 26 years later.
Since Norwood.Law only discovered it years after the fact, the second “Lisa” report wasn’t available in 1991 to boost Atchison’s defense. That meant his attorney couldn’t link the report to physical descriptions of the shooter given by other witnesses that much more closely matched Wayne Jones at the time than Corey Atchison.
Whether Wayne Jones, Reginald Patterson, Andre Green, or any other names mentioned by witnesses were ever seriously considered by investigators is unknown. But one thing’s for certain. Within days of the Lane murder, Corey Atchison had a target on his back. On the same day as Lisa’s call with police and again the following month, Atchison was interrogated. Investigators say in police reports that they only innocently questioned Atchison “as to any information he might have in reference to this case.”
In fact, according to a federal lawsuit we later filed against the city of Tulsa and several Tulsa police officers, interrogators pressured Atchison to confess to killing Lane. They told Atchison that his friends had already snitched and were pointing the finger at him. Atchison maintained his innocence and had to be let go each time he refused to cave. Two particular detectives involved who were named in our suit would appear again and again throughout the Lane case: Robert Jackson and Gary Meek.
‘He was still breathing’
Our client Corey Atchison has been telling anyone who would listen for three decades that he and his three friends were driving around Tulsa together the night James Lane was killed. They were not present prior to the shooting.
When gunfire rang out, the males who were arguing with Lane ran from the area. This occurred just as Atchison was turning the wheel of his Oldsmobile 98 onto South Atlanta Avenue, and his headlights illuminated Lane’s fallen body. Atchison slammed on the brakes.
One of the four friends, Benjamin King, would later say in a sworn 2016 affidavit that Atchison “wanted to go over to the guy who was shot. Everyone else in the car told Corey that it was a bad idea. … [But] Corey was determined to help the guy, and the guy was still alive at that time.”
Atchison recounted that night later for a Tulsa podcast: “I know when I got over there, and I saw the dude laying down, I was trying to get him some help. I was like, ‘Somebody call an ambulance! Somebody call the police!’ He was still breathing. Before long, the police arrived.”
The four decided to linger with a crowd that had gathered to watch as paramedics attended to Lane and police processed the crime scene. One of the four young men, King, who was 16 at the time, ominously told the group that the police were likely going to question them. In the coming weeks and months, authorities would do much more.
As dawn was approaching at around 5 a.m., the four started to leave. But just as they were backing out in Atchison’s car, several police cars surrounded them. They were individually searched along with the vehicle and questioned about Lane. Police found nothing.
Early that same morning, police made contact with a witness named Stephenne Jacob who saw the confrontation and shooting. Jacob told interviewers that prior to the murder, she’d been walking down South Atlanta Avenue with two friends – “Lisa” and another woman named Lynette Williams.
Jacob told police that she had seen James Lane earlier that night attempting to make a drug buy with a large wad of cash. The three women now saw Lane on the street talking to a group of males. An altercation broke out when Lane retrieved the pile of bills apparently to make a drug purchase. Shots were fired. The attackers left with some or all of the money.
While Jacob didn’t have a name for police, she described the shooter as a black male with an approximate height of 5’8” and a weight of about 140 pounds. Wayne Jones around that time was 5’8” and 145 pounds. Corey Atchison, on the other hand, was 6’2” and 265 pounds. Stephenne Jacob also gave investigators names and street names for three other people in the group surrounding James Lane that night. Plus, according to police reports, she supplied the address of a house where they were known to hang out. Whether investigators ever pursued these leads is not known.
Despite the police interview with Stephenne Jacob about what she saw, prosecutors did not call for her to testify at Atchison’s trial the following year for murder. In fact, they didn’t disclose a report to Atchison’s defense about Jacob and what she said to police until just before the trial began. When Atchison’s attorney at the time scrambled to request an extension to locate and interview Jacob and other potential witnesses, a judge appears to have denied it, according to available court records.
It wasn’t the only time critical information that could have aided Atchison’s defense was withheld from him until the last minute. Other times it was never turned over at all. Prosecutors are required under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland to hand over any evidence or information to defense attorneys prior to the start of a trial that could absolve a person of guilt. But the requirement is commonly flouted.
Meanwhile, Jacob finally got her chance to speak about what she saw some 28 years later after Norwood.Law got involved in the case. It was at a so-called “evidentiary” hearing in Tulsa to determine if Atchison was, in fact, innocent despite the years he’d spent in prison. Jacob testified that she had known Corey Atchison well for years prior to the shooting. Atchison was definitely not the killer she saw that night, Jacob said.
Who is ‘Candyman’?
Three months after the Lane killing, a new witness in the case turned up named Leticia Nottingham. She lived in an apartment near Kendall-Whittier Elementary School on East 5th Street and looked out her kitchen window that night after hearing angry voices. She told police that a group of males was arguing with James Lane near where police and paramedics would eventually find Lane’s body.
Nottingham had few details about two of the men. But a third man she remembered more sharply. He was 5’8” to 5’9”, seemed to weigh around 160 or 170 pounds, and was in his 30s or 40s. While Wayne Ramone Jones would have been 30 at the time of Lane’s death, Atchison was just 19. The description given by Nottingham more closely matched Jones than Atchison.
As Leticia Nottingham watched, this one man continued to strenuously argue with Lane. She turned away for just a moment and turned back when the gunshots went off. Lane was lying on the ground.
Tulsa police Det. Robert Jackson said in a report that Nottingham’s description appeared consistent with information police had developed on a possible suspect who went by the street name “Candyman.” Jackson stated that a supplement on Candyman would later be attached to his report containing further details.
However, this supplement on Candyman was never given to Atchison or his earlier attorney, nor was a recording and transcript of the interview with Nottingham. The city of Tulsa has since acknowledged that the recording went missing. Atchison’s defense attorney in 1991 was not informed about even the existence of Nottingham and Det. Jackson’s interview with her until just days before trial commenced.
The judge apparently denied a request for more time by Atchison’s legal defense to locate and interview Nottingham and Stephenne Jacob, both of whom were never called to testify at trial by either the prosecution or defense. By the time Norwood.Law became involved in the case 25 years later, Nottingham had passed away and was not available to tell what she saw.
That nonetheless meant three witnesses to the Lane murder had given descriptions of the shooter that aligned better with Wayne Jones than Corey Atchison. In the case of “Lisa,” she outright named Wayne Jones as the killer. Witnesses Jacob and Nottingham gave physical descriptions that resembled Wayne Jones more than Corey Atchison.
But the belated release of key records to Atchison and his defense attorney on the eve of trial meant there was little time to track down these witnesses and uncover the connections between what they told investigators. The attorney for Atchison at that time also could not explore the possibility that Candyman and Wayne Jones were, in fact, the same person.
Atchison’s street name at the time was “Cheese.”
A life of crime
Juvenile records are typically sealed, so it’s difficult to know what life was like for Wayne Ramone Jones as a youth. But decades of criminal offenses in Oklahoma punctuate Jones’s life as an adult from his teens to his 60s.
Jones’s lengthy adult criminal record includes two stints in prison of 10 years each for armed robbery. In his most recent criminal arrest from September of 2020 some 30 years after the Lane murder, Jones pled guilty to attempting to steal knives from a Tulsa location of Home Depot and threatening a clerk with one of them. He also refused to comply with commands from a police officer and was charged with threatening violence, assault with a dangerous weapon, and larceny. He was sentenced to four years but served less than two.
Three decades before, Jones’s earliest offenses as an adult came just weeks after his 18 birthday in 1978 when he earned three felony convictions in Tulsa for knowingly concealing stolen property. Jones was sent to prison for two years in that case. Shortly after getting out, Jones was sent right back in 1980 for four years when he was convicted of grand larceny.
Following early release, Jones was being arrested again in 1982 on felony second-degree burglary charges in Tulsa, for which he was given a new prison sentence of seven years. Before that term was complete, Jones was out and once again given a felony conviction in 1986 for knowingly concealing stolen property. He was sentenced to seven years in state custody. Three years into that term, he was convicted in 1989 of escaping a correctional institution and given a suspended sentence of five years.
By the time of the Lane murder in 1990, Jones would have been on probation for the attempted escape. And it wasn’t long before he was in trouble once more. Just four months after Atchison was put on trial for Lane’s murder, Jones purportedly walked into a north Tulsa gaming hall with a sawed-off shotgun at 10 o’clock p.m. Jones ordered three people who were in the hall to lie down on the floor while he took their money. He was eventually caught and sentenced to more than two decades in prison. Jones served only half.
His now numerous stints in prison were doing little to dissuade him from returning to crime over and over. After being released from the gaming-hall robbery, Jones was yet again arrested six months later in 2003 and accused of robbing someone in Oklahoma City. According to police records, Jones approached a woman in the parking lot of a Walmart while carrying a gun and demanded her purse.
The woman turned it over. A witness then saw Jones run to a purple getaway car that was identifiable by a smaller spare tire on the front driver’s side. Authorities tracked the purple car to an apartment complex where private security confirmed it was being driven by Wayne Jones. The victim then identified Jones in a photo lineup. He was given a sentence of 15 years but was released after 12. He was arrested once more for grand larceny in 2018 after being accused of stealing jewelry from a home in west Tulsa.
But despite Jones’s lifetime as a serial offender, police and prosecutors were focused on Corey Atchison in the murder of James Lane, and they wouldn’t relent.
‘Coerced’ to tell mistruths
There was another witness on the night of the murder who turned out to arguably be the most important of them all despite not having directly seen the killing. Doane Thomas was just a teenager at the time and dove into the bushes when he heard the gunshots at 4th and Atlanta. When Thomas emerged, he saw Atchison walking up to the scene and yelling for someone to call 911.
Thomas would repeatedly insist to police and prosecutors in later interviews that Atchison could not have been the one to kill Lane, since he had approached the scene only after the shooting took place. Later in court, however, Thomas told a dramatically different story. He would become the only witness to claim under oath that Atchison was the triggerman.
On the night of the killing, however, Doane Thomas, who lived not far from the crime scene, wasn’t yet known to police. They only learned about him six months after the murder in an entirely unrelated incident. On Feb. 8, 1991, Thomas was 17 years old and attending Central High School in northwest Tulsa. That day, Thomas approached school officials to report that he had been assaulted by someone named “Big” Eric Smith.
The school decided to call police. Thomas was transported to a Tulsa police station where he said in an interview that Corey Atchison had been present when “Big” Eric Smith roughed him up.
At some point, Tulsa police detectives Gary Meek and Robert Jackson became involved in the interview and began to question Thomas. But they weren’t so much interested in “Big” Eric Smith. They wanted to hear what Thomas knew about Atchison and the Lane murder. Thomas clarified that Atchison hadn’t played any part in assaulting him. That was all “Big” Eric Smith. But Thomas revealed that he, in fact, had been at 4th and Atlanta the night Lane was shot. He saw Atchison trying to get help for Lane by telling people in the area to call 911.
“My intention was to get after ‘Big’ Eric Smith for assaulting and harassing me, but the detectives turned my reporting of Eric Smith into making a case against Corey Atchison,” Thomas said in an affidavit 26 years later after Norwood.Law became involved in the case.
The detectives persisted. Police told Thomas that if he named Atchison as the shooter, then “Big Eric” wouldn’t bother him again. Thomas eventually succumbed and would later say he was “coerced” into calling Atchison the killer. On at least five separate occasions, Thomas says he told then-Assistant District Attorney Tim Harris that his statements to police and testimony to a jury about Atchison murdering Lane were not true. But his protests were ignored, according to Thomas.
A recording of the interview with Doane Thomas was never disclosed to Atchison or his attorney. The city of Tulsa eventually acknowledged that it was missing.
The mistruths continue
Thomas wasn’t the only one grilled by detectives that day in February of 1991. Next on the list was a teenaged boy named Demacio McClendon who lived near the crime scene at the time of the Lane murder.
While speaking to Doane Thomas, detectives had pushed him to admit that he and Demacio McClendon were friends and that McClendon had been with him the night of the shooting. No, Thomas told them, Demacio wasn’t there. Investigators wouldn’t accept that answer. As a result, the eventual false statement Thomas gave about Atchison being the killer also asserted that Demacio McClendon was present as a witness.
So on the same day as the Doane Thomas interview, police removed Demacio McClendon from school and took him to a station for questioning. He was just 15 at the time, and no parent was present, according to briefs we submitted in the case years later after becoming involved. Once again it was Tulsa police detectives Robert Jackson and Gary Meek conducting the interview.
McClendon told them he wasn’t there the night Lane was killed. But the detectives insisted they knew McClendon had information about what happened and threatened to throw him in jail. Name Atchison as the killer, or you’re going down. Under pressure, McClendon finally caved like Doane Thomas. He falsely stated that Atchison pulled the trigger and that Benjamin King – one of the four friends in the car that night with Atchison – was present when it happened.
So investigators moved on that same day to Benjamin King who was pulled from Nathan Hale High School and transported to an interrogation room. He was only 17 at the time, and no parent was present. The interrogators – detectives Meek and Jackson – began threatening King and screaming at him. They said that he could be sent to prison for life or even executed.
As they had done with Atchison, Meek and Jackson told King that his friends were pointing the finger at him. They wouldn’t let him leave. For hours, King stood by his story that Atchison couldn’t have committed the murder, because he and King along with friends Marquis Alexander and Mareo Johnson had driven up to the scene after the fact.
But eventually, King grew to believe the detectives when they said that his friends were blaming him for the murder. After hours of interrogation, an exhausted King relented and identified Atchison as the killer of James Lane. King later stated in a December 2016 affidavit:
“The detectives told me that I couldn’t leave unless I gave them a statement about Corey. They told me that once I gave the statement that Corey shot James Lane, then I could go home. … I didn’t want to lie and say that Corey killed James Lane. … I remember feeling so ashamed of lying about Corey the whole time I was being video-recorded by the detectives.”
After getting what they wanted, detectives Jackson and Meek ditched their promise to King that he would be let go. Instead, he was arrested for allegedly being involved in the murder. King had been the one to warn his friends on the night of the murder that police could somehow decide they were involved. He was right.
All four of the young men in the car – Corey Dion Atchison, Marquis Lamar Alexander, Mareo Donnell Johnson, and Benjamin Heath King – were ultimately charged with the murder of James Warren Lane. But only one would pay the ultimate price.
In the world of criminal law, a preliminary hearing takes place before the trial. It is a sort of preview of what’s to come. At this stage, a judge can choose to dismiss a case if the evidence and testimony do not sufficiently establish probable cause. If that happens, the defendant is not bound over for trial. Or, the judge can send the case to a jury.
In late March of 1991 when the preliminary hearing occurred for Atchison and his co-defendants, two uniformed police officers showed up at Doane Thomas’s house to take him to see Assistant District Attorney Tim Harris prior to testifying against Atchison. Harris had been assigned to prosecute the case.
Thomas told the prosecutor that Atchison did not kill Lane and that the statement he’d given to police saying as much was untrue. According to an affidavit that Thomas wrote 26 years later, the prosecutor told Thomas that if he didn’t name Atchison as the killer in court, Atchison would get out of jail and kill him.
Thomas, who was 17 at the time, acquiesced again and agreed to testify against Atchison. Prosecutor Tim Harris then “coached” him to ensure that his testimony was consistent with what he’d told detectives Jackson and Meek about Atchison being the shooter. Thomas then went on to tell the story in court that Harris and the investigators wanted to hear. First, he had met up with Demacio McClendon. Then they had witnessed the co-defendants jump James Lane before Atchison shot him.
Following Doane Thomas, Demacio McClendon was called to testify. He started to tell the story he had previously given to detectives Meek and Jackson the month before in a recorded video statement. On the witness stand, however, McClendon had a change of heart and dropped a bombshell on the court.
McClendon testified under oath that he had only identified Atchison as Lane’s killer because he was threatened and felt pressured to do so by detectives Meek and Jackson and prosecutor Harris. Further, the recorded statement McClendon gave to investigators in early February of 1991 was fed to him.
The explosive testimony from McClendon prompted Tulsa County Judge Pete Messler to step in and ask McClendon if he had even been there with Doane Thomas the night Lane was murdered. No, came the answer. Judge Messler then called for a recess and took McClendon and the attorneys for each side into his chambers.
There, McClendon said he did not know how he’d been dragged into the case. He had not witnessed Atchison break any laws and did not know Atchison to be someone who would shoot and kill someone else. The detectives, McClendon said again, were angry and pounding the desk during the interview and had pressured him into giving the recorded statement naming Atchison as Lane’s killer. McClendon was still only 15 at the time of his testimony.
McClendon said that he did, however, at one time speak to the third woman who was with “Lisa” and Stephenne Jacob on the night of the shooting: Lynette Williams. McClendon said that Williams told him she also was allegedly pressured by police to identify Atchison as the killer. Police concealed the fact that they ever even spoke to Lynette Williams until shortly before trial.
Following the astonishing revelations made by McClendon, the charges against Marquis Alexander, Benjamin King, and Mareo Johnson were dropped or dismissed. But despite McClendon’s extraordinary disclosures, the case against Atchison was sent ahead to trial. Atchison was now alone and in a fight for his life.
Atchison on trial
At Atchison’s trial in June of 1991, prosecutor Tim Harris again and again sought to frame the killing of Lane as evidence of ongoing violence being committed in Tulsa by the Bloods and Crips street gangs. The Crips and Bloods at that time were the subject of a national media frenzy over the perceived dangers of gang membership and rap music. The relentless, hyped media coverage of gangs helped fuel negative perceptions of neighborhoods of color as being plagued by brutality, drug abuse, and unemployment.
Harris evoked the Crips and Bloods from the outset of the trial by asking prospective jurors what they knew about the gangs. He had witnesses show gang signs and gang tattoos. He alleged that Atchison and his friends were gang-affiliated. Prosecutor Harris brought up the Crips and Bloods time and again to keep the subject fresh in the minds of jurors.
But Norwood.Law wrote in a later brief that Harris was desperately trying to establish connections where they didn’t exist: “There was never any evidence entered into the record that James Lane was in a gang or that the shooting of Lane was gang-related. Thus, [Assistant District Attorney] Harris’s repeated questioning of witnesses about the Bloods and Crips was utterly irrelevant, unduly prejudicial, and improper. The photos of James Lane’s body at the scene show no signs of him wearing gang colors.”
Otherwise, the case against Atchison at trial was held together only tenuously by the planned testimony of teenaged eyewitnesses Doane Thomas and Benjamin King. Prior to his trial testimony, Thomas again tried to correct the record and tell prosecutor Tim Harris that he had not seen Atchison murder Lane. Thomas said that falsely testifying against Atchison another time as he had during the preliminary hearing would “make me sick.” According to Thomas, prosecutor Harris responded that it was too late. You would already be known as a snitch. Atchison would find and kill you if you didn’t testify.
Thomas revealed 26 years later that ahead of his testimony at the trial, Tim Harris had again “coached” him on the details of the shooting. “We rehearsed this several times,” Thomas wrote in his 2017 affidavit. Thomas then went on the witness stand at trial and repeated what he had said during the preliminary hearing and his interview with detectives Meek and Jackson: Corey Atchison shot and killed James Lane.
Benjamin King, however, dropped a new bombshell on the court when it was his turn to testify. He began by telling the court that he was in the car with Atchison that night along with Mareo Johnson and Marquis Alexander. But King refused to repeat what he told detectives Meek and Jackson when they interrogated him for hours – that Atchison had murdered Lane.
King instead testified to what the four friends in the car that night had been telling police and prosecutors and anyone who would listen all along. They had turned the corner in Atchison’s car from East Fourth Street onto South Atlanta Avenue, heard gunshots, and saw people running from the scene.
Prosecutor Harris then asked King about the recorded statement he’d given detectives Jackson and Meek in which he identified Atchison as the shooter. That was an untrue statement given under duress, King responded. The detectives were threatening me with life in prison and the death penalty. For hours, they would not let me leave until I said what they wanted. Prosecutor Harris still played the video from King’s interrogation in which he stated that Atchison was the shooter.
Next, Corey Atchison and Mareo Johnson testified similarly to King about the four coming upon the crime scene after the shooting happened. They hadn’t been involved in the shooting itself. The fourth friend, Marquis Alexander, didn’t testify but signed a later affidavit in June 2017 swearing that Atchison was driving the car that night and could not have shot Lane. He also testified at a 2019 hearing.
By this point, two witnesses had recanted their statements to detectives Meek and Jackson that Atchison was the shooter. Three witnesses had given descriptions of the killer to police that didn’t match Atchison but did roughly align with another man. Three people in the car that night said Atchison could not have done it, because he was with them.
That meant prosecutors had only one person under oath who was pinning the blame for Lane’s killing on Atchison: Doane Thomas. Aside from Thomas’s testimony, there was no other direct evidence tying Atchison to the crime.
A jury nonetheless decided that prosecutor Tim Harris had presented enough for a conviction. Atchison was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Harris would go on to become the longest-serving elected district attorney in Tulsa County history. He held the office for 16 years.
‘I was appalled”
By the time Norwood.Law took on the Atchison case, he’d been in prison for well over two decades and had filed one fruitless appeal after another. At times, Atchison represented himself “pro se” in these appeals hoping someone, anyone, would listen to his claims of innocence. But he was repeatedly met with denials from state and federal judges.
Atchison’s girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter at the time he was arrested. As the years of incarceration passed by, Atchison not only missed his daughter’s upbringing but wasn’t there for the birth of his grandson. He was denied permission to attend the funerals of his older brother and grandmother.
We were moved by Atchison’s struggle and set about painstakingly reviewing a mountain of court, police, and other records in the case and carefully assembling a detailed application for post-conviction relief. After submitting an exhaustive pleading in January 2019 that totaled 180 pages, we hoped a Tulsa judge would reconsider the facts of the case and see what we saw: an innocent man.
A critically important break in the case occurred after Norwood.Law became involved. Doane Thomas had a new public story to tell. Despite what he’d said in court and told police, Thomas had never seen Corey Atchison kill James Lane after all. In fresh testimony and an affidavit, Thomas said he was threatened by Tulsa police detectives Gary Meek and Robert Jackson as well as Tulsa County prosecutor Tim Harris.
“The testimony I gave both at the preliminary hearing and trial against Corey Atchison was false and coerced by Tim Harris and the police,” Thomas stated in his affidavit. “I hereby recant that testimony against Atchison.”
Norwood.Law presented the case for Atchison’s innocence at evidentiary hearings held in the fall of 2018 and in early 2019. Testimony from Stephenne Jacob, Mareo Johnson, and Marquis Alexander corroborated the new version of events being told by Doane Thomas. But still there were no assurances Atchison would win his long-sought freedom back. As Atchison had learned already, defendants were often turned away when asking judges for a new look even when there were glaringly obvious flaws in a case.
So Atchison waited as patiently as possible for Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes to review the briefs, affidavits, and testimony in the case. Weeks passed by and then months. Finally, Holmes announced her decision at a July 16, 2019, hearing.
Atchison’s sentence of life in prison was being vacated. Judge Holmes found him “actually innocent” by “clear and convincing evidence” of shooting James Warren Lane. Atchison, in other words, was a free man. Arguably the most striking remarks made by Judge Holmes in court had to do with the teen witnesses:
“A common theme throughout this case was that those children were taken from school, taken to the detective division, and interrogated. At no time were parents advised that this was happening. … I actually had the transcripts from some of the interviews and, frankly, I have to tell you, I was appalled at how those interviews went.”
The legal term “actual innocence” means that prosecutors never sufficiently proved a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Judge Holmes pointed to several other factors that informed her decision to exonerate Atchison:
- There was never any physical evidence tying Atchison to the crime.
- Police and prosecutors relied solely on eyewitnesses: “Everybody realizes that eyewitness testimony is inherently unreliable.”
- The teenaged witnesses who did name Atchison as the killer “were coerced.”
- Atchison was searched and questioned the night of the killing, and nothing was discovered. He willingly waited for responders to arrive.
- Repeated attempts by prosecutor Tim Harris to frame Lane’s murder as a gangland killing were bogus.
The ruling from Judge Holmes meant that the true triggerman was still free from accountability.
Atchison’s remarkable story doesn’t even end here. While it would seem improbable, Atchison’s own brother was also wrongfully convicted in a completely unrelated case. Just a few years after Atchison was sent to prison, Malcolm Scott and co-defendant De’Marchoe Carpenter were accused of a 1994 drive-by shooting on a house party that resulted in the death of a young woman named Karen Summers.
Scott shares a tight bond with Atchison from childhood and was convicted of the Summers murder in 1995. Among the people who helped put Scott away was none other than Tulsa police detective Gary Meek who’d been involved in Atchison’s case.
Like with Atchison, investigators zeroed in on Scott and Carpenter and refused to let go. But an alternative shooter would later confess to the killing shortly before being executed by the state of Oklahoma for an unrelated murder. A gun and car found at the outset of the Summers investigation had pointed to the alternative gunman and away from Scott and Carpenter.
The two men nonetheless spent 20 years in prison for killing Summers until being exonerated by the same Tulsa County district judge who freed Corey Atchison: Sharon Holmes. Just as in the Atchison case, there was no physical evidence connecting Scott and Carpenter to the murder of Karen Summers. And witnesses who supposedly saw the pair do it later recanted their stories.
Once out of prison, Atchison talked to a local Tulsa podcast about the experience of being wrongfully convicted in chillingly similar circumstances but in a separate case from his brother.
“It was very disturbing – his whole situation when they first arrested him. It was disturbing to me. It hurt, because that’s, like, my little brother. I always protected him. I felt I always needed to protect him. … When he got convicted, I was real angry. It was like opening up a wound again. It really hurt.”
Although Atchison today tries not to focus on the negative, his nearly three decades behind bars were surely, at times, bleak. Since being released, he endures bouts of anxiety, depression, despair, rage, and fright stemming from what happened to him. More than half of his life was spent fighting the government’s insistence that he was a murderer. As our ongoing federal lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and police detectives Jackson and Meek states:
“[Atchison] was robbed of his young adulthood. He was deprived of opportunities to gain an education, to engage in meaningful labor, to develop a career, and to pursue his interests and passions. [He] has been deprived of all the basic pleasures of human experience, which all free people enjoy as a matter of right, including the freedom to live one’s life as an autonomous human being.”