A Black man wrongfully convicted of murder hopes the nation will finally see real change in relations between the African American community and law enforcement following massive protests over the death of George Floyd.
“I’m happy people are taking notice, I’m sorry that it took such a drastic situation for people to finally actually acknowledge it,” said Malcolm Scott, referring to the national reckoning on race and police relations following Floyd’s death.
Scott was exonerated in May 2016 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after spending more than 20 years in prison. His older brother, Corey Atchison, also was wrongfully convicted in a separate murder case and exonerated in 2019.
Watch the hour-long special “The Long Road to Freedom,” on @DatelineNBC tonight at 10 p.m. ET to learn more about their cases.
“There’re a thousand ways I could connect it, at the heart of it for me, I want to see a change. That’s the only reason I want our story to be shared,” Scott said Friday. “It’s all intertwined, I was screaming that I was innocent, it’s been 26 years ago now. So this is definitely nothing new. It just got to the point that now it’s visible.”
In 1995, Scott and a friend were found guilty of killing a young mother named Karen Summers in a drive-by shooting, a murder they both said they did not commit.
They were sentenced to life in prison after eyewitness testimony. Three years prior, Atchison had been convicted of a separate murder and sentenced to life. He also insisted he was innocent.
“At first, I was like, this is my fault because he followed in my footsteps,” Atchison said of Scott. “It felt like this was my child being taken away.”
Scott told Dateline the two brothers had an agreement.
“We basically had made a pact with each other. We said, ‘Man, whoever gets out of here first better come get the other one,” he said.
Years later, Scott was able to persuade a private investigator named Eric Cullen to track down one of the eyewitnesses who had identified him and his friend as the killers. The man told Cullen that Tulsa police threatened to put him in prison if he didn’t testify against them.
Cullen worked with Tiffany Murphy, then the director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, and together they tracked down a second eyewitness.
That eyewitness recanted and told them police had coerced his testimony, too.
“This was a man who was remembering something that was extremely traumatic and as a Black woman, I get that,” Murphy said. “You know, the fear of the police is a real thing.”
Now only one key witness stood between Scott and a possible exoneration, a gang member named Michael Wilson. Wilson was on Death Row for killing a convenience store manager.
Just two days before he was scheduled to be executed, Wilson agreed to meet with Murphy and confessed on video.
“I wasn’t trying to shoot Karen Summers. I was just, she was one of those type of things you know, and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said on the video.
Tulsa police and the district attorney’s office declined to speak with NBC News about Scott’s case. In court, they denied they coerced any witnesses and insisted that what Wilson said in the confession video was a lie.
But in May 2016, a judge ruled that Scott had been wrongfully convicted.
“I stood on my faith. I stood on my faith.” Scott said, tears streaming down his face.
He then focused on getting his brother exonerated.
Atchison had been convicted in the 1990 drive-by shooting of James Lane, 29, and sentenced to life in prison.
Scott said after he was freed he quickly asked his attorneys what he could do to help his brother.
“They’re like, man, you haven’t even enjoyed being home yourself. I won’t be completely able to. I need him home,” Scott said.
Working with a lawyer, Cullen turned to working Atchison’s case and discovered further allegations of witnesses being coerced and of eyewitnesses who told police someone else was the shooter.
Tim Harris, a former district attorney in Tulsa who prosecuted Atchison, told Dateline it was “patently false” that he had coerced an eyewitness in the case and said he had never coerced, forced testimony or presented false testimony in his career.
The judge in Atchison’s case found there had been a “fundamental miscarriage of justice” and his homicide conviction was thrown out in 2019.
“I remember I woke up with tears in my eyes and one of my partners came in my cell and he said, ‘What’s up?’ I said, man, I’m going home,” Atchison said.
Scott is suing the city of Tulsa and the officers who he claimed coerced testimony used to convict him and his friend. who was also exonerated.
The city and the officers have denied the claims and are fighting to dismiss the lawsuit.
Scott said he isn’t looking for blame, he is looking to ignite change.
“I know the pain. I know the hurt. That’s what this is about for me. Giving that next man a chance,” he said.