A Tulsa judge who last year vacated a 1996 robbery conviction must now make a determination of the man’s actual innocence, the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined in a July, 2013 opinion. The opinion clears the way for the man to file a wrongful conviction claim against the state of Oklahoma.
In a case championed by the nationwide Innocence Project and Tulsa attorney Richard O’Carroll, attorneys introduced newly available DNA evidence that discredited an expert witness’ claim that the Sedrick Courtney was the likely donor of dyed-red hairs discovered in a ski mask. The mask was found near the scene of a home invasion robbery in which an eyewitness had identified Courtney as one of two assailants. Read the Innocence Project’s synopsis of the case at www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Sedrick_Courtney.php.
With the new evidence in hand, prosecutors agreed with a defense motion claiming that Courtney had been wrongfully convicted. Newly developed methods for mitochondrial DNA testing discredited the testimony of an expert witness who said Courtney was the likely source of hairs found on a ski mask allegedly worn during the robbery.
The trial court agreed, too. The Tulsa judge reversed Courtney’s conviction and released him from prison. He’d already served half of a 30-year sentence. Then Courtney’s attorneys set their sights on gaining compensation for the time their client had spent in prison after being convicted on flawed expert testimony.
To recover financial damages from the state for the time he was imprisoned after being wrongfully convicted, Courtney was required under the Governmental Tort Claims Act to obtain from the trial court a finding of “actual innocence.” State law says that for a person to collect a claim based on actual innocence, a trial court must find “clear and convincing evidence” that the crime “was not committed by the individual.”
Prosecutors argued that a new jury could still convict Courtney based on eyewitness identification by a victim who said she new him prior to the robbery. Defense attorneys questioned the identification, which was based on a fleeting glimpse of part of the robber’s partially unmasked face while the victim was being severely beaten. Tulsa Judge William Kellough agreed, and refused to grant the finding of actual innocence.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Once a conviction is overturned, the accused person regains a presumption of innocence, the court reasoned. In reviewing evidence of actual innocence, a trial court must review the evidence in the light most favorable of the exonerated defendant, the high court concluded.
“We do not believe that the legislature intended the court to make a final adjudication of actual innocence at this state,” Vice Chief Justice John Reif wrote in an 8-1 opinion. Justice Steven Taylor dissented. (See Courtney v State of Oklahoma, 2013, OK 64.)
Instead, the Supreme Court viewed the trial court’s role in determining actual innocence as that of a “gatekeeper.” Clear and convincing evidence is simply a measure of sufficient evidence to produce a “firm conviction of the truth of the allegation,” the Supreme Court concluded.
If the state disagrees with a district court’s preliminary finding of actual innocence, it may later deny the wrongful conviction damages claim then present the claim to a jury in a civil trial. The civil court jury may then decide if sufficient evidence supports a finding of actual innocence, the court noted.
The court’s decision opens the way for Courtney to file a claim against the state of Oklahoma for the time he spent in prison. Courtney’s is one of 11 Oklahoma wrongful convictions and 311 wrongful convictions nationwide the Innocence Project has helped overturn using DNA evidence.
Free Consultation: Tulsa Criminal Defense Attorney
Courtney’s case demonstrates the importance of effective criminal defense, even long after a case seems settled. A 2013 Oklahoma law provides for DNA testing in violent felony cases and where charges result in a sentence of 25 years or more. Although it was the last state in the nation to adopt a post-conviction DNA testing law, Oklahoma’s is among the most comprehensive DNA testing laws in the nation, providing for testing even in cases where a defendant pleaded guilty, confessed or is not currently in custody.
If you believe you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted, contact a Tulsa criminal defense attorney at the Wirth Law Office for a free, confidential consultation. You may be entitled to post conviction relief, including financial compensation. For a free consultation, contact the Wirth Law Office’s criminal defense division at (918) 879-1681 (or toll free at (888) Wirth-Law) or submit the question form at the top right of this page.