Tulsa-based private investigator Eric Cullen has helped secure freedom for six wrongfully convicted Oklahomans who served a combined 130 years behind bars.
Since 1989, Oklahoma has exonerated 37 people who lost 355 years of their lives wrongfully incarcerated. Cullen said the “war on drugs” beginning in the early 1970s put an increasing number of people behind bars through harsh enforcement and prosecution, serving as the catalyst for “how we got here.”
“Oklahoma can do better,” Cullen told the Rotary Club of Tulsa during its meeting Wednesday afternoon at First United Methodist Church in downtown. “We are doing better, and we’re going to continue doing better.”
How? Cullen pointed to Conviction Integrity Units.
He explained those are divisions within prosecutorial offices that work to prevent, identify and correct false convictions.
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There were 44 CIUs across the U.S. in 2018 and none in Oklahoma, he said. Twenty-one states have CIUs, including Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Texas.
“Oklahoma does not have a Conviction Integrity Unit,” Cullen said. “I would submit that the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office and the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office should probably have to do that.”
Cullen also highlighted two new laws targeting false convictions that became effective Nov. 1.
Senate Bill 798 requires law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy governing eyewitness procedures, such as use of a blind administrator in lineup identifications and notification the suspect might or might not appear.
Senate Bill 636 mandates law enforcement agencies adopt a written policy to ensure all custodial interrogations of suspects regarding homicides or felony sexual offenses are electronically recorded.
“Most people are wrongfully convicted on ineffective witness testimony and identification, bias and of course there’s allegations and confirmations by courts all across the land of police tactics during interrogations,” he said, later noting that defense attorneys and judges share blame too, not just police and prosecutors.
All six of Cullen’s exonerees were at the Rotary Club meeting. Two of them, Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter, were declared innocent and released by a Tulsa County judge in 2016.
Scott spoke to the crowd of his “bewildering” and “horrific” experience 22 years behind bars beginning at age 17 for a murder he didn’t commit.
He unsuccessfully wrote to attorneys and judges. He attempted studying law.
“I was trying to find someway to prove my innocence and show they got the wrong guy,” Scott said.
Cullen came into Scott’s life in 2005 through a pamphlet he sent to all the prisons in Oklahoma. It took 11 years of doubt, hope and work before Scott at age 39 could took his first breaths as a free man since he was a teenager.
Through prayer, Scott now understands his purpose in life is to help others who similarly are wrongfully convicted and to help prevent those miscarriages of justice in the first place. He found a “new zest of inspiration for life” that he’s honored to carry on his shoulders as he generates change.
“I’m here for those that are voiceless,” he said. “I’m here for those who are still going to miss this Christmas coming up.”