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Ricky Dority

Other Oklahoma Exonerations
Just after noon on October 9, 1997, a technician with AT&T found the body of 28-year-old Mitchell Nixon on the outskirts of Gans, Oklahoma, in a neighborhood next to a cluster of radio and microwave towers called Tower Estates. An autopsy report would later say that Nixon had been beaten in the head and body and also showed evidence of strangulation.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and the Sequoyah County Sheriff’s Office investigated the murder.

Later that day, Nixon’s white Mazda pickup was found in a church parking lot outside the town of Sallislaw, the county seat and about 10 miles away from Gans. Forensic technicians recovered blood from inside the truck and also pulled at least one fingerprint. Nixon’s truck was new, and he was not known to carry a lot of cash, leaving investigators without a clear motive for the crime. In addition, the recent rain had washed away any potential physical evidence indicating how Nixon might have ended up at Tower Estates.

The OSBI released composite sketches the next month of two men said to have been seen with Nixon at Connie’s Bar the night before his body was found.

As the years passed, the sheriff’s office continued to interview potential witnesses and suspects, including a young man named Rex Robbins who had been charged in 1997 with several crimes related to auto larceny. Robbins would later say that Sheriff Ron Lockhart interviewed him “eight or nine” times in the years after Nixon’s murder; each time Robbins denied involvement in the crime.

On March 6, 2013, Robbins gave a statement to Lockhart, confessing that he, Bobby Scott, and Ricky Dority beat Nixon to death with rocks and their hands after a fight at Tower Estates. Robbins was charged with murder and agreed to plead guilty and testify against Dority. Scott had died in 2010.

At the time, Dority, then 55 years old, was serving a lengthy sentence in federal prison for a 1999 gun-possession conviction, with a scheduled release date of March 22, 2016. He was charged with murder in Nixon’s death on August 12, 2014. Dority’s trial in Sequoyah County District Court began in early August 2015.

Dr. Ronald DeStefano, the pathologist who had performed the autopsy, testified that he could not provide a specific cause of death because of the extent of Nixon’s injuries. Asked by the prosecution whether the injuries were consistent with being hit by a rock, he said, “They could be.”

DeStefano said that one of Nixon’s head wounds “was not caused by a rock” and appeared to very closely match the dimensions of a socket-set extender. He had made the comparison after an OSBI agent gave him a tool seized from a man who had been an initial suspect in Nixon’s death.

Robbins was the state’s main witness. He testified that he was walking to his mother’s house to eat dinner on October 8, when he ran into Dority. He said that Dority offered him a lift in his truck and then persuaded Robbins to take methamphetamines. They parked near Tower Estates, and Robbins injected speed, which he said he had never done before.

A short while later, “as the sun was going down,” Nixon and Scott showed up in Nixon’s truck. Scott got out of the passenger’s side; Nixon got out of the driver’s side. The two men argued, then began punching each other.

Robbins testified he got out of Dority’s truck with an idea of running off. Instead, Robbins said, Scott picked up a rock and told Robbins to hit Nixon with it. Robbins said he hit Nixon five or six times with the rock. Then, Robbins said, Dority joined in, hitting Nixon with his fist, and later saying, “Let’s kill him.”

Robbins said he told Dority he wasn’t going to kill anyone and that Dority then hit him in the head with something. Robbins said he ran to Nixon’s truck. (This was at odds with his testimony at a preliminary hearing, where he had said he went to check on Nixon’s breathing.)

Robbins said he drove off in Nixon’s truck and went to his mother’s house. He said he washed the mud from the truck but did not clean the inside. Later that night, Robbins said, he drove to Marble City to look for more speed, then drove around with a friend for about 30 minutes. He said he later dropped off his friend and then parked Nixon’s truck in a lot on the east side of Sallisaw.

Robbins testified that he had previously given Lockhart and other investigators different, false accounts of his activities on the night of the murder. In these earlier accounts, Robbins said someone had approached him while he was walking to Hardee’s and asked Robbins if he wanted to make a little money by washing out a truck. He said these accounts weren’t true, but he kept lying to investigators because he didn’t want to be arrested.

The jury watched a video of the statement Robbins made on March 6, 2013, where he confessed to his involvement in the murder. The video did not include the first part of the interview, in which Lockhart threatened to bring in Robbins’s mother for questioning, and Robbins said, “Leave my mom alone, and I will tell you the whole thing.”

Herman Wheeler testified that in early October 1997, Dority came by his house on Ninth Street, in the town of Muldrow, about seven miles east of Tower Estates. It was between 5:30-7 p.m., Wheeler said, and Dority was driving an El Camino.

Wheeler said that Dority had blood on his shirt and pants. He took a shower and asked Wheeler for clean clothes, which Wheeler gave him. Wheeler said they disposed of the bloody clothes in a neighbor’s burn barrel. Wheeler testified that Dority told him that he and Scott had “gotten into it with some guy” at Tower Estates. Wheeler said that he ran into Dority the next day, and Dority asked whether Wheeler wanted to ride out to Tower Estates. Wheeler said he didn’t remember the specific dates of these visits, but he said he heard about the murder a day or a few days later.

Heather Wheeler, Herman’s daughter, testified that she was also at home the day Dority stopped by at the house. She said she opened the door and saw Dority “had blood all over him.”

Vicky Lyons, an OSBI agent, testified that Robbins was not a contributor of the fingerprints or blood found in Nixon’s truck. No comparisons were ever done with Dority’s prints, she said.

Lyons testified that a woman named Sheala Pate-Marcum had told her on October 13, 1997, that she was working at Connie’s Bar on October 8, when Nixon came in between 9-10 p.m. and then left around 11 with two other men. Pate-Marcum had told Lyons that Nixon, who lived a few miles south of the bar, was a regular. Pate-Marcum died in 2007.

Lyons also testified that a man named Garland James had been a person of interest in the initial investigation, but she found no evidence connecting him to the murder. James died, most likely of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in December 1997. Because Dority would present alibi evidence, whether or when Nixon had been at Connie’s Bar on October 8 would be a critical fact in the timeline he used in an attempt to prove his innocence.

Vernon Barnes, formerly with the police department in Roland, testified that he had pulled Dority over “sometime before dark” on October 8, 1997, and then called an agent with the local drug task force after finding a marijuana cigarette in the ashtray of Dority’s car. (Roland is east of Muldrow and farther away from Gans.) The agent’s report said that call was made at 8 p.m.

Dority was arrested, taken first to the Roland City Jail, and then transferred the next day to the Sequoyah County Jail, where he remained until October 14, 1997.

Dority testified and denied any involvement in Nixon’s death. He said that on the afternoon of October 8, 1997, he and a woman named Kelly Johnson had borrowed a car from a friend who lived in Roland, then gone to the Walmart in Fort Smith, Arkansas, arriving around 4:30 or 5 p.m. He said they spent about 45 minutes to an hour at the store, buying supplies to make methamphetamine, then headed back to Sequoyah County. They were pulled over just west of Roland and arrested after the marijuana was found.

Johnson could not be located to testify.

George Bormann, an investigator with the sheriff’s office, testified that he drove the distance between Tower Estates, Wheeler’s house in Muldrow, the house in Roland where Dority borrowed the car, and the location where he was later arrested. He said the trip took 22 minutes.

In its closing argument, the state said that Dority’s arrest must have happened around 8 p.m., leaving him “plenty of time” to participate in Nixon’s death, get rid of his clothes at Wheeler’s house, and borrow a car. The prosecution said that Dority presented no evidence to corroborate his alibi.

On August 12, 2015, the jury convicted Dority of robbery and first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole. Robbins pled guilty to manslaughter in December 2015 and received a sentence of 22 years in prison.

Dority appealed, arguing that there had been insufficient evidence to support his conviction because Robbins’s testimony—as an accomplice—lacked adequate corroboration. Dority also said that the state had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence related to Robbins’s previous statements to law enforcement, and that his attorney had been ineffective in cross-examining Robbins and others about these statements.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction on June 5, 2017. The court said that the testimony of Herman and Heather Wheeler was sufficient to corroborate Robbins’s testimony, even if Herman Wheeler was fuzzy about the dates of his interactions with Dority. The court also said that because there was no evidence that the sheriff’s office had recorded any of its previous interviews with Robbins, there was no exculpatory evidence or prior statements to disclose.

Dority remained in state prison. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, he became eligible for a stimulus check under federal guidelines. Dority used that money to hire a private investigator named Bobby Staton.

Staton would later tell the Associated Press that he realized quickly that the state’s case had a lot of holes. He reached out to the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which assigned a law student named Abby Brawner to assist Staton.

On September 12, 2022, Andrea Miller, the legal director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, filed a petition for post-conviction relief. The petition asserted new evidence of innocence and said that the state’s key witnesses had testified falsely. Alternatively, the petition also said that if the courts considered this evidence not to be new, the judicial review should evaluate whether Dority’s trial attorney was ineffective for failing to uncover this evidence.

Robbins had recanted his testimony in January 2022. Interviewed by Brawner and Staton at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, Robbins said that he had implicated Dority only after Lockhart threatened to drag Robbins’s mother into the case.

Robbins said he did not know who killed Nixon. He saw Scott at Tower Estates the day of the murder but did not see Nixon’s truck or Dority.

In his affidavit, Robbins said investigators had told him that his fingerprints were found on Nixon’s truck.

Although Robbins said he knew nothing about Nixon’s white truck, he said he had taken another white truck from the parking lot of the Walmart in Sequoyah County without the owner’s permission and driven around for a little while. This truck was not connected to Nixon’s death, Robbins said.

Robbins also described an event that he said happened prior to Nixon’s death. In the affidavit, he said he ran into Dority and his cousin outside his cousin’s house. Robbins said Dority hit him on the head with a rock, then the three men did drugs. Robbins said he was covered in blood and later drove a friend’s white pickup to his mother’s house.

The petition also included a 2021 affidavit from Johnson, who had moved to North Dakota. She described the shopping trip with Dority on October 8, although she listed different stores. She said the traffic stop occurred before dark, “but it might have been late enough that our headlights were on.”

The Wheelers had testified that Dority, with blood on his clothes, came to their house on Ninth Street in Muldrow. But that was false. A different family member had lived in the house since 1996, after the Wheelers moved out.

The petition also said that Herman Wheeler had falsely testified about Dority coming to see him the day after he first showed up with blood on his clothes. That also wasn’t possible. “The prosecutors who presented this testimony at trial either knew, or should have known, that this testimony was false since they knew of Mr. Dority’s arrest in Roland and knew or should have known that he was in jail the night of October 9th,” the petition said.

In addition, the petition said Dority’s defense team had “developed information” that Herman Wheeler was a long-time informant for state and federal law-enforcement and that this relationship was not disclosed at trial. (The petition did not cite any specific evidence; at trial, Wheeler had testified that in exchange for his testimony against Dority he hoped to get a reduction in the sentence he was then serving.)

The petition also included affidavits from several people who said that James had confessed either to them or to friends of theirs. Three of these people, including James’s former wife, said that James looked like one of the men in the original composite sketches.

In its response, the state said that the new evidence claimed by Dority was either not new or was cumulative and wouldn’t have made a difference if his attorney had presented it at trial. The response also said that Robbins’s recantation was not credible. The response said the state had learned that Herman Wheeler had at “one time” been a “cooperating individual” with the Sequoyah County Sheriff’s Office, but it was unable to find documentation about that relationship.

On June 15, 2023, after an evidentiary hearing, Judge Jeffrey Payton of Sequoyah County District Court granted Dority’s petition and ordered a new trial. He said that Dority’s trial attorney had provided ineffective representation, specifically noting the testimony at the hearing of the man who actually lived in the house that the Wheelers said they had lived in at the time of the murder.

Dority was released from prison that day. The state filed a motion to dismiss on December 14, 2023, which Judge Payton granted that day. The order said that Dority had “made a threshold showing of factual innocence of murder in the first degree.”

Assistant District Attorney James Dunn said he agreed with the dismissal after hearing the testimony of the homeowner that discredited the testimony of Herman Wheeler. “The last thing I want to see is an innocent person in prison for a crime they didn't commit,” Dunn told the Associated Press. “Because that means the person who actually did commit the crime, or those persons, are still out there.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/23/2024
Last Updated: 1/23/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1997
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No