An Oklahoma man has been freed from prison after a judge ruled Tuesday that he did not commit the crime.
Corey Atchison was sentenced to life in prison in 1991 for the 1990 murder of James Lane, ABC News reported. Lane had been shot in the chest with a pistol. Atchison, then 20 years old, just happened to be in the area with his friends at the time of the shooting. He was arrested six months after Lane’s murder and said he was innocent.
On Tuesday, shortly after Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes ruled Atchison was actually innocent of the crime, he was released from prison after spending 28 years behind bars.
Police said during Atchison’s original trial that Lane’s murder was part of a gang-related attempted robbery, but Judge Holmes said in her ruling that she believed a key prosecution witness was coerced. A witness, Benjamin King, even testified that he had been coerced by the prosecution into pointing the finger at Atchison, yet still the conviction was upheld in 1994.
ABC reported that prosecutors “immediately filed a notice of appeal of the ruling and former District Attorney Tim Harris, who prosecuted the case as an assistant district attorney, has filed an affidavit denying he ever coerced a witness.”
The Washington Post reported that Atchison is the second man in his family to be wrongfully convicted of a crime. His younger brother, Malcolm Scott, had his own murder conviction overturned in 2016 by none other than Judge Holmes. That murder was unrelated to the crime for which Atchison was imprisoned.
“Corey was arrested three months before his daughter was born; this is the first time he’s been able to have some real contact with her and the same with his 10-year-old grandson,” Atchison’s attorney Joseph Norwood told the Post. “I’m very proud to have vindicated them and reunited them.”
Atchison’s mother, Ruth Scott, called it a “great day” when her son was released.
“I knew he didn’t do it. I knew he didn’t do it, I knew he didn’t do it when it happened," she told reporters.
Atchison’s case was helped by private investigator Eric Cullen, who began looking into the case after helping Malcolm Scott. Cullen found transcripts of King testifying at a hearing that he was coerced into implicating Atchison, but the trial still moved forward, the Post reported. King did not testify to this at Atchison’s trial.
“I’ve done this a long time,” Cullen told the Post. “I’ve never heard of this or seen that. On the record, 1991, a 15-year-old standing up to an extremely aggressive DA who had just bullied him in the hallway.”
Tulsa World reported that Judge Holmes wrote in her ruling that the “court thinks the purported eyewitnesses who were used were coerced.”
“Without those witnesses, I don’t think a jury would have found Mr. Atchison guilty of this crime,” she added.
There was not just one witness who said they were bullied by prosecutors into blaming Atchison for the murder; there were two. Prosecutors’ star witness, Doane Thomas, said in an affidavit in 2017 that he was also pressured to name Atchison. Further, Tulsa World reported, other witnesses described someone other than Atchison as having committed the murder.
“Other witnesses, such as Stephenne Jacob, testified recently about seeing an assailant at the scene near Fourth Street and Atlanta Avenue who did not match Atchison’s physical description. Neither Jacob nor Leticia Nottingham, another witness who has since died, was called as a witness during Atchison’s trial,” the outlet reported.
Despite this experience, which has robbed Atchison of more than half his life so far, the wrongly convicted man holds no grudges.
“You fall and you gotta get back up before long because if you dwell on it, it’s gonna turn you down,” he said after getting released. “You just move on and keep going. It’s the only way you’re gonna make it. I can’t hold no grudge. Life’s too short.”
ABC reported that Judge Holmes’ finding of “actual innocence” would allow Atchison to receive up to $175,000 as compensation for his wrongful conviction.