“I can go where I want to now,” said Courtney, 40, before he left the Tulsa County Courthouse.
District Attorney Tim Harris announced in a hearing Thursday morning that based on new DNA evidence, Courtney’s 1996 convictions for armed robbery and first-degree burglary should be vacated.
The decision came a day after a congressional hearing on reforming forensic science and more than three years after the National Academy of Sciences found “serious deficiencies” in the country’s forensic science system and named nuclear DNA analysis the only consistently reliable way to link an individual to pieces of evidence.
On Sept. 27, District Judge William Kellough will decide the terms of the dismissal.
Courtney was convicted of allegedly attacking and robbing Shemita Greer at gunpoint in her east Tulsa apartment on April 6, 1995. Two intruders wore ski masks and took tires, rims and about $400. Greer, who sustained a traumatic brain injury, said Courtney was one of the intruders.
Results from DNA testing available at the time were inconclusive, but microscopic hair analysis allegedly revealed that one red hair from a mask was consistent with a similar hair of Courtney’s.
Courtney maintained his innocence and had three alibi witnesses, but he was convicted in February 1996. He was released on parole in June 2011 after serving 16 years of his 30-year sentence. The Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to get wrongful convictions reversed, took on his case in 2007.
After Thursday’s hearing, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck corrected some observers’ impressions that the outcome was ambiguous.
“It is over,” Scheck said. “Mr. Harris got up in court, and said he’s vacating the conviction.”
In September, Kellough will decide the technical point of whether the case “constitutes clear and convincing evidence of innocence,” Scheck said. Alternatively, the judge might find only that there is “reasonable probability of a different outcome” if Courtney were tried again, said Craig Cooley, Courtney’s lead attorney with the Innocence Project.
“Those are two thresholds,” Cooley said. “We think it’s actual innocence. The state is saying no because the victim was still adamant that she identified Sedrick, which is not shocking. A lot of victims have difficulty realizing they may have made a mistake.”
The decision affects Courtney’s ability to file under the state compensation law, which could get him $175,000.
“For 16 years in a maximum security prison, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Scheck said, adding that federal civil rights suits give claimants $1 million per year. Texas law provides for $160,000 per year, he said.
Last September, Cooley nearly closed Courtney’s case because he’d been told the evidence had been destroyed.
As a last-ditch effort, Cooley went to Erik Wilson, a law student working with the project’s legal clinic who had a good record for locating evidence.
Wilson tracked down the hairs that brought the case back to life. New DNA tests revealed that the red hair used against Courtney, and all the others tested previously, were not his.
Cooley and Wilson filed a motion in March to vacate the conviction, and the hairs were discussed at an April hearing. Just after, Wilson learned that Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dunn had found the ski masks, which for some reason had been sent to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The masks “blew open the case,” Cooley said.
DNA tests of facial scrapings from the masks excluded Courtney. The team has yet to determine whether the samples can be entered into the database to search for the real perpetrators.
Courtney’s nightmare is over, but he’ll never get back the years he lost.
“We’re blessed to be here to see him exonerated,” said Hattie Courtney, a relative. “But the 17 years are lost. I’m afraid it’s something that can’t be replaced.”
Scheck and the Innocence Project are pushing for laws that can help prevent more lost time for wrongful convictions. A bipartisan commission in the state Legislature is considering some solutions, which will hopefully include a post-conviction DNA statute, Scheck said.
“Forty-nine other states have them,” he said. “We don’t … and this is really necessary.”
In Oklahoma, problems with microscopic hair comparison have played a part in three of the 11 wrongful convictions reversed because of DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project. Courtney’s was the 293rd post-conviction DNA exoneration in the U.S. and the 11th in the state.
With his newfound freedom, Courtney plans to “enjoy life” and travel to other states and countries.
“I want to visit as many as I can, everywhere,” he said.
Waiting until the September ruling doesn’t seem too bad compared to all those years, Courtney said.
“The entire time I just knew that God knew the truth and that one day … the truth would come out,” he said.