This can’t be. This simply cannot be.
That thought rushed through Sedrick Courtney’s mind when a Tulsa County jury declared him guilty of armed robbery and first-degree burglary in February 1996.
“It was disbelief,” said Courtney, 40, who has lived in Comanche for several months now. “I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Courtney spent 16 years in prison before he was paroled in June 2011. Last Thursday, a Tulsa County judge — with consent from prosecutors — vacated his conviction based on new DNA testing.
The judge is scheduled to decide technical terms of the dismissal in September, but the conviction is wiped out. The felony is gone from his record. No more probation terms. A dark, dark cloud that has dogged him for years has been lifted.
“From where I’ve been and what I’ve been through, I just appreciate every day now,” Courtney said.
After he was paroled last year, Courtney met Tina Benedict of Comanche and they married last March. The couple lives in Comanche with Tina’s 2-year-old son, Elijah.
Sedrick works at the Family Dollar distribution center in Duncan and Tina is dietary manager at the Country Club Care nursing home in Duncan. They spent time with Sedrick’s family in Tulsa after Thursday’s court hearing and came home Sunday.
Tina Courtney said her husband missed so much of life while in prison, they naturally want to make up for it. Like, right now.
“Before all this he had only been to Oklahoma and Arkansas,” Tina said. “He’s never been to Texas or Louisiana or Florida. Never seen the ocean. Never been to Nashville.”
“Never been on an airplane,” Sedrick said.
Courtney was convicted in the burglary and robbery of Shemita Greer, who was home in Tulsa on April 6, 1995 when two men wearing ski masks kicked in her apartment door and attacked her at gunpoint.
Greer was robbed and severely beaten, and said Courtney was one of the intruders. She said she recognized his voice.
DNA testing available at the time on hairs that were found on the ski masks were inconclusive. But a lab specialist said one of the hairs was similar to one from Courtney’s head.Tulsa authorities maintained for years that evidence used at trial had been destroyed, but through efforts of the New York-based Innocence Project, the ski masks and some duct tape were relocated last year.
New DNA tests showed that none of the hairs on the ski masks belonged to Courtney. And facial scrapings from the masks did not match.
Courtney said that he had socialized with Greer before the crime, but there was absolutely no animosity between them. After two years in prison, he gave up trying to figure out why she pointed the finger at him.
“There was nothing,” he said.
He said he was innocent from the beginning and rejected a plea offer that called for 10 years to life on each of the burglary and robbery counts. Knowing he was innocent, he thought there was no way a jury would convict him.
Courtney said he can’t remember having ever prayed to God before, but he turned to him when the jail doors were slammed shut after the conviction.
“They say he puts you in a position where there is no one else to turn to but him” Courtney said. “I had nobody else to turn to. My family couldn’t help, my lawyer couldn’t help me, the judge wasn’t going to help me, the woman (Greer) wasn’t going to help me. I had nowhere else to turn to but God.”
Courtney spent the first six months of Oklahoma incarceration at the Cotton County jail awaiting transfer, then a year at a medium-maximum security prison at Granite, nine years at Holdenville, three years at Cushing and the rest of prison time at Vinita.
He said he tried to steer clear of trouble behind bars, and being tall and strong helped to keep other inmates from messing with him. Somebody got stabbed almost daily at Granite, he said.
“I didn’t smile a lot, and that helped,” he said. “I was basically a loner. I didn’t bother people. My family made sure I didn’t have to ask people for anything in there. I pretty much stayed to myself.”
Courtney spent most of his time in a small cell with a cellmate, but when he was moved to the lower-security prison at Vinita, he found himself in a huge, wide-open room with 160 other inmates. He never got used to that.
“I hardly slept there,” he said.
Before being paroled, Courtney spent his last six months at a work-release facility in Lawton. But he was not paid for road work he did while there, and when he was released, he was given just $50 to make it back to Tulsa.
Courtney said his family stuck by him throughout, and he usually talked with his sister, Sheritta, once a week. Courtney had four children previous to his conviction, and Courtney’s eldest son was 21 or 22 when he was shot and killed by an acquaintance.
He has a good relationship with one of his grown kids now, but he said two have not forgiven him for being away.
Courtney said today, most things – especially small matters – don’t get to him. When his sister complains about something, he offers her perspective.
“I say, ‘Sis, I was in prison for 16 years — it cannot possibly be worse than that,’” he said.
Tina said she and other family members make a fuss over Courtney — trying to get him to say what HE wants to do, fix him something to eat that he wants.
“It’s, ‘We want to know what YOU want. We want to do what you want,’” Tina said.
But Courtney is easy to please.
“What do you want? I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve been eating prison food for 16 years. I don’t care what it is. I’m not eating it on a tray, I don’t have to watch my back while I eat. Whatever it is, I don’t care.”
Tina said her husband is simply amazing, especially with Elijah.
“He gets him ready every morning, he gets him breakfast, he takes him to daycare, he picks him up after work and takes him home,” she said. “He puts him to bed. He can’t get enough.”
After 16 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and his conviction lifted, Courtney can’t get enough of freedom, period.
Courtney looks back - and forward - after 16 years in prison on wrongful conviction
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