R. Thomas Seymour couldn’t make up for the 14 years Arvin McGee spent in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. But Seymour did help clear his name and win $12.3 million from the system that failed him
Published in 2006 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2006
Updated on April 6, 2016
In 1989, Arvin McGee was tried — for the third time — for the Oct. 29, 1987, kidnapping and rape of a young Tulsa woman. After a mistrial and a hung jury, he was convicted and sentenced to 365 years in prison, later reduced to 298 years. He entered prison the same day his son was born.
Arvin McGee was as innocent as his newborn child.
By the time DNA testing exonerated McGee, he had spent 14 years behind bars. He had suffered beatings that left him with a bum knee and bad back, both of which will be with him for the rest of his life. And he accumulated dark prison memories that still haunt him. “People don’t know what goes on inside,” he says.
Even so, when McGee walked out of the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington on a late winter
day in 2002, he was neither consumed by rage nor a desire for vengeance. Instead, he was determined to clear his name by suing the city of Tulsa for violating his civil rights.
“My mom never gave birth to a rapist,” he explains. “To me, that was more important than anything.” No one in his family had ever been in prison before. “So for them to tarnish my reputation like that, it falls back on my family, my upbringing.”
By the time McGee became a free man, wrongful-imprisonment litigation was already making its mark in Oklahoma. In 1999, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were released from prison after DNA testing proved them innocent of a murder for which they had been convicted in 1988. Two years later, DNA testing exonerated Jeffrey Todd Pierce after he had served 15 years in a rape case.
All three men filed suits against their prosecutors, and the Williamson-Fritz case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. At the time, high-end settlements around the country had topped out at around $2.5 million. But substantial judgments for wrongful-incarceration settlements are often hard to come by. In a recent suit tried in Chicago, a man exonerated by DNA testing after spending 27 years in prison received nothing.
So when McGee first entered the fifth-floor offices of the Seymour Law Firm in Tulsa in the fall of 2003, he was looking for a legal team that could get as fired up as he was to redeem his good name. The firm’s senior partner, R. Thomas Seymour, and his colleagues, C. Robert Burton IV and Scott A. Graham, appeared to be a good match.
Clients and fellow attorneys alike have called Seymour brilliant, unpredictable, tough, an enigma and a well-oiled machine. Frederic Dorwart, a senior partner at Frederic Dorwart Lawyers in Tulsa, having worked both with and against Seymour, puts it simplest: “He’s a hell of a lawyer.”
Seymour, known for his laser-focused mind and a taste for colorful neckties, is no stranger to highly charged, high-profile cases.
In 1993, a multi-county grand jury indicted Oklahoma Gov. David Walters on eight felony counts and a misdemeanor involving campaign contributions violations, which Seymour negotiated down to a single deferred misdemeanor. And his is the only law firm in the country that has two awards of attorney fees against the U.S. Department of Justice under the Hyde Amendment. In one of those cases, Seymour won a $220,000 settlement for Gertrude Brady, a former Commercial Financial Services executive, in her wrongful-prosecution case against the federal government.
Seymour particularly enjoys civil rights and criminal cases. And he can think of no better way to pay back a system that has been good to him than to take on a good case for someone in real need of legal services. “Even if you don’t prevail, you’ve touched people’s lives in a very positive way. That’s very rewarding.”
The Arvin McGee case, which represented a terrible travesty of justice, seemed to fit that bill. An examination of the police investigation of the crime for which McGee was wrongly convicted raised numerous red flags.
• “[Tulsa police detective Randy Lawmaster] did not go see the victim for two weeks” after the assault, says Seymour. “The composite sketch was not done for two months,” and “does not look like Arvin McGee.”
• The only evidence against McGee was an eyewitness identification using a five-photo lineup that had serious problems. “Under the requirements of the Supreme Court of the United States, and common sense, and common decency,” Seymour pauses, looking aggrieved, “you find four other photos that are as close as possible to Arvin’s in terms of height, weight, age, body build, haircut, what have you.” Instead, Seymour calls the lack of similarities between the photos in Lawmaster’s lineup “simply staggering.”
• The victim claimed she would never forget her assailant’s voice, and requested a voice lineup. Lawmaster refused, in violation of McGee’s constitutional right. (When the actual assailant was apprehended 15 years later, the victim reportedly recognized his voice immediately.)
McGee’s wrongful-imprisonment suit against the city of Tulsa opened in federal court on March 27, 2006, before an all-white jury (McGee is black). Seymour promptly called Lawmaster to the stand. During a devastating review of the detective’s flawed investigation, Lawmaster acknowledged that he had violated McGee’s constitutional rights. Seymour, who had never heard of a policeman admitting that on the stand before, says, “You could have heard a pin drop” in the courtroom.
The next day, Graham put McGee on the stand.
As a survival mechanism in prison, McGee had walled off his emotions, so Graham was worried about how he might come across to the jury. “But Mr. McGee was natural, and he opened up,” Graham says. “Everyone in the courtroom could tell it was all genuine, unrehearsed and from the heart.” Graham adds with a pained sound, “Which made it harder to hear. His story is just a horrible one that makes you ache for what he and his family went through.”
McGee’s wrenching revelations — including seeing his son only twice in 14 years because he didn’t want his little boy to witness things such as sex acts taking place in the prison visitation area — had the courtroom in tears. “I have never experienced testimony as mesmerizing,” Seymour says, “nor will I ever [again].”
After McGee left the stand Tuesday morning, Seymour rested his case. Opposing counsel, which had presented no opening argument and had cross-examined neither Lawmaster nor McGee, then raised eyebrows in the courtroom by resting without calling a single witness.
Baffled as to why the city’s attorneys had presented no case at all, Seymour expected a call from them offering a settlement. To his surprise, no call came.
But Seymour had a surprise of his own in store in his closing argument.
Jurors had remained attentive throughout the trial, and he was confident they would return a verdict of some amount for McGee. But Tulsa juries are notoriously conservative. So rather than risk setting the bar too high, Seymour boldly broke ranks with conventional wisdom by not providing a specific dollar figure for the jury to consider. His gamble paid off.
On March 29, 2006, the jury returned a verdict for Arvin McGee in the amount of $14.5 million — possibly the largest wrongful-imprisonment award in the nation, according to Seymour. (The jury foreman later told Seymour that they awarded $1 million for each year that McGee spent behind bars, plus “extra change” for injuries incurred during his incarceration.)
The brevity of the trial was stunning: Jury selection Monday morning; Seymour rests his case by Tuesday noon; closing arguments Wednesday morning; and just hours later, Arvin McGee is a rich man … almost.
When Seymour contacted Tulsa City Attorney Alan Jackere to discuss the settlement, he was rebuffed. So to avoid a lengthy appellate trial, Seymour sat down and wrote a seven-page “Dear Alan” letter that began:
“On the Monday after the $14.5 million jury verdict in the Arvin McGee case, I called you to see if you would like to discuss the case. … Your reply, verbatim, was ‘we have nothing to offer you.’ I have thought about that approach … and have concluded that you must not have all the facts before you. This letter will try to solve that problem. In addition, there is something that has not yet been made public that the city of Tulsa should give very careful attention to. And that is what the jury did in this case. The jury … set the amount that low so the city would pay, and not appeal, and bring some closure to Arvin McGee’s case.”
Judge Claire V. Eagan eventually stepped in and ordered a settlement conference. On June 2, 2006, the case was finally settled for $12.25 million.
Arvin McGee’s quest for redemption was, to Seymour, “without a doubt the most personally and professionally meaningful case I ever had. Mr. McGee is a marvelous, unbelievable human being. He has no vengeance, no retribution in his character or in his demeanor. This was a case that needed to be brought.”