DNA Evidence Exonerates Oklahoma Man Who Served 16 Years for a Burglary and Robbery He Didn’t Commit
Innocence Project Urges State Lawmakers to Stop Lagging Behind the Rest of the Nation and Enact DNA Testing Law
Contact: Paul Cates, (212) 364-5346, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Tulsa, OK; July 19, 2012) — With the consent of the District Attorney’s Office, a Tulsa County judge today exonerated Sedrick Courtney of a 1995 burglary and robbery after DNA testing excluded Courtney as the source of a hairs found on ski masks worn during the crime. Courtney served 16 years in prison for the crime before he was released to parole in 2011. After the court’s ruling today, Courtney will no longer have to live under the restrictive conditions of parole.
“We are grateful for District Attorney Tim Harris’ help in quickly bringing an end to the terrible injustice faced by Mr. Courtney,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Mr. Courtney was able to get the DNA testing that has cleared his name. Undoubtedly there are many others who have not been so fortunate because Oklahoma has the unfortunate distinction of being the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a DNA testing law. Hopefully this horrible miscarriage of justice will spur state lawmakers to do the right thing and make it easier for those who have been wrongly convicted to get access to the DNA testing that can clear their names.”
Shemita Greer was in her home in the Park Plaza East neighborhood on April 6, 1995 when two men wearing ski masks kicked in her apartment door, and attacked her and robber her at gunpoint, taking nearly $400 in cash, four tires and four tire rims. Greer was severely beaten during the attack and spent three days in the hospital for a traumatic brain injury.
Greer told the detectives who arrived on the scene that she recognized the taller of the two men as Sedrick Courtney. According to Greer, Courtney had been wearing a black ski mask and the shorter assailant was wearing a green ski mask. Greer, who had socialized with Courtney on several occasions, said she recognized him from his voice and from a brief instance when he lifted his ski mask to cool down. Detectives recovered the black mask on the sidewalk east of Greer’s apartment and the green mask across the street on top of the tires that were stolen.
Despite Greer’s positive identification, Courtney wasn’t arrested until two months later on June 12, 1995. The other assailant was never identified. Prior to trial, the state performed DNA testing that was available at the time on the hairs that were recovered from the ski masks, but the results were inconclusive. Carol Cox of the Tulsa Police Department Forensic Laboratory also conducted microscopic hair analysis on the hairs. She found that the hairs that were recovered from the black ski masks were too short to do a comparison with Courtney’s hair samples. Cox also claimed that an “unusual” single bleached red hair recovered from the green ski mask was similar to a bleached red hair taken from Courtney’s head.
At trial, the prosecution used the hair evidence to bolster Greer’s identification of Courtney. To explain the fact that the matching dyed red hair was found on the green mask, the prosecution argued in summation that Greer may have “mixed up” who wore which ski mask and also argued that Courtney may have owned both ski masks. Despite the fact that Courtney testified to his innocence and presented three alibi witnesses, he was convicted in February 1996 of robbery with a firearm and first-degree burglary and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“Mistaken identifications have contributed to nearly 75% of the 294 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA,” said Craig Cooley, a former staff attorney with the Innocence Project who is now working with the North Carolina Innocence Project. “After decades of social science research on memory and identification we now know that many factors can lead to misidentification. Voice identifications have proven to be particularly unreliable, especially when the person making the identification has been physically assaulted as was the victim in this case.”
In 2000, Courtney’s previous attorneys with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System sought DNA testing on the hairs recovered from the ski masks but were told by the Tulsa Police Department that the evidence had been destroyed. Soon thereafter, Courtney wrote seeking help from the Innocence Project, which began working on the case in early 2007. In response to the Innocence Project’s request for the evidence, the Tulsa Police Department again claimed the evidence had been destroyed but could not, however, produce the official documentation identifying when the evidence was destroyed. In September 2011, Eric Wilson a former U.S. Marine and a law student with Cardozo School of Law who was participating in the legal clinic of the Innocence Project contacted the Tulsa Police once more seeking the evidence, and this time the evidence was found and subsequently sent to a lab for testing. Improvements in DNA testing enabled the analyst to conduct testing on all ten hairs recovered from the black ski mask and five hairs from the green ski mask, including the dyed red hair that Cox claimed matched to Courtney. The testing confirmed that none of the recovered hairs matched to Courtney. Nine of the ten hairs recovered from the black ski mask were found to have come from the same donor. Four of the five hairs recovered from the green ski mask were found to have come from the same donor.
“Mr. Courtney suffered terribly at the hands of the state, and but for a tremendous piece of luck, he would still be fighting to clear his name,” said Richard O’Carroll, a partner at the Tulsa law firm O’Carroll and O’Carroll. “Oklahoma needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and enact clear rules granting defendants access to DNA testing and for preserving evidence.”
Based on the results of the DNA testing and the consent of the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office, Judge William C. Kellough today overturned Courtney’s conviction and exonerated him of the crime. He was surrounded by family members as he walked out of the court room a free man with his reputation restored and no longer required to live under the strict conditions of parole. Courtney is currently employed fulltime in a commercial warehouse. He was married in March of 2012.
Last year Oklahoma City School of Law started the Oklahoma Innocence Project to investigate possible cases of wrongful conviction in the state. Founder Lawrence Hellman and Director Tiffany Murphy attended today’s exoneration. Hellman said, “Mr. Courtney’s case unfortunately represents just one of many wrongful convictions in the state. In just the last year alone, we have heard from hundreds of people seeking to clear their names. When there are cracks in the system, the only people who benefit are the real perpetrators who are left free to commit other crimes. We look forward to working with state lawmakers to improve the system so these types of injustices don’t happen in the future.”
The exoneration follows the announcement by the Department of Justice last week that it would begin a review of thousands of cases where FBI lab technicians may have contributed to wrongful convictions because of testimony regarding hair microscopy. Faulty hair analysis has played a role in 3 of Oklahoma’s 11 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing. Tulsa Police Department Forensic Lab analyst Carol Cox also conducted the hair microscopy in the case of Timothy Durham, who was exonerated of a Tulsa rape in 1997 and was in court today to support Courtney. Faulty hair analysis also contributed to the wrongful murder convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who were exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999 and were the subject of John Grisham’s only nonfiction book, An Innocent Man.
Last week identical bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and the U.S. House Science Committee mandating scientific review and standards for forensic sciences. The bills are designed to address the wide ranging deficiencies in scientific validation and the lack of oversight of forensic sciences that were highlighted in a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences. The bills would put experts working at science-based agencies in charge of conducting research to ensure that forensic science disciplines have a strong scientific backing and are governed by consistent and meaningful standards.
The legal team representing Courtney included, Scheck, Cooley, O’Carroll and Innocence Project Managing Attorney David Loftis.