At about noon on April 6, 1995, two men with pistols and wearing ski masks kicked in the door of Shemita Greer’s apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The men forced Greer to the floor, pistol-whipped her and duct-taped her eyes and mouth.
During the robbery, which lasted less than 10 minutes, the men kicked Greer, 23, in the head and she played dead. They left with $397 in cash from her purse, four tires and four wheel rims.
After the robbers left, Greer called police. She said the taller man, who was wearing a black ski mask, was 23-year-old Sedrick Courtney, whom she had known for about three years and had socialized with in the past. She said that before her eyes were covered, Courtney lifted up his ski mask high enough so that she recognized him. Greer also said she recognized the man’s skin tone and voice as Courtney’s.
The ski masks, one black and one green, were found outside the apartment.
Courtney was arrested on June 12, 1995 and charged with robbery and burglary. The other robber was never identified or prosecuted.
At trial in Tulsa County District Court, Greer identified Courtney as her assailant, saying she was “positive” in her identification.
Several hairs recovered from the ski masks were sent to the Tulsa Police Department crime laboratory for analysis. Seven of the hairs had roots and were sent for DNA testing, but the results were inconclusive.
A crime laboratory analyst testified that she could not make a comparison with Courtney’s hair because his hair samples were too short. She said the hairs in the black ski mask could not be eliminated as having come from Courtney. The analyst said that a bleached red hair found in the green ski mask was microscopically consistent with a bleached red hair recovered from Courtney.
Faced with this inconsistency—the hair said to be consistent with Courtney’s hair came from the green mask while Greer said Courtney was wearing the black mask—the prosecution argued to the jury that Courtney could have owned both masks and worn both of them prior to the robbery.
Courtney presented three relatives who testified that he had borrowed a car to attend a class at an unemployment center at the time of the robbery.
On February 8, 1996, a jury convicted Courtney of armed robbery and burglary and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In 2000, after losing his appeals, Courtney sought DNA testing on the hairs, but the Tulsa Police Department said the hairs had been destroyed.
In 2001, Courtney contacted the Innocence Project for help. In 2007, an Innocence Project lawyer sent a letter requesting a search for the hairs, the masks and the duct tape that was recovered at the crime scene.
In 2008, the police department again reported that the evidence had been destroyed. Courtney was paroled in June 2011 after serving more than 16 years in prison.
In September 2011, on a whim, a law student working on the case for the Innocence Project telephoned the police department to ask once more about the evidence. This time, the department reported that it still had the hair slides from the black and green masks.
Mitochondrial DNA testing failed to link Courtney to either the black or green mask. Testing on the 10 hairs from the black mask excluded Courtney and nine of the hairs came from the same person. Testing on the 5 hairs from the green mask also excluded Courtney and four of them came from the same person.
On March 12, 2012, a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus was filed in Tulsa County District Court.
On July 19, 2012, Courtney’s conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed. In July 2013, Courtney was granted a certificate of actual innocence. Since then he has received $175,000 in state compensation and in June 2014 he filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Tulsa. The lawsuit was settled in October 2015 for $8 million.
– Maurice Possley