Story of teen’s questionable confession leads to fight for juvenile justice reform

Investigations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There’s a picture of Antaeus Colbert smiling and standing next to the pastor after baptized at St. Luke Baptist Church in 2018. Months later, Colbert’s funeral was held in the same sanctuary after he was shot and killed in a parking lot near Lamar and Airways.

Three days after the shooting, Memphis Police tweeted they’d found the person responsible.

Oshay Sims, 17, was arrested and charged with second degree murder.

The arrest shocked Nadra Stevenson, the assistant principal of Fairley High School.

“Everyone who knew Oshay, knew that this was not him,” Stevenson said.

Oshay Sims was a stand-out student at Fairley, Stevenson said.

“He was ideal, like you want a child, you’re like, I wish I had someone like this,” she said. “Oshay didn’t do this, and I have to figure out how I can help him.”

Attorney Janika White said Stevenson was just one of the people who reached out to her about Sims.

“This lady would not stop, she maintained, ‘You need to understand, he didn’t do it, I know he didn’t do it,'” White said.

So she called criminal defense attorney Kamilah Turner.

“Once I looked at the discovery, I really could not believe that they had chosen to charge him,” Turner said.

But the teen signed a confession, admitting to killing the 26-year-old during a drug deal.

That very statement, though, was where Turner began her legal battle.

“I didn’t see anything connecting him with the crime other than the fact that he said that he did it, and moreover, I saw evidence that another person that was not even considered a suspect was the person who had actually committed the crime,” Turner said.

Court records show Sims told police a guy named Gregory Williams, also known as “G” picked him up and asked to use his phone. “G” talked to someone on the other end about buying weed.

Sims said they pulled into an AutoZone parking lot, and “G” handed him a gun, “just in case he try something.” In the statement, Sims said he approached the vehicle and handed the guy money, but the guy asked if it was counterfeit.

Sims continued and said, “He kinda started reaching for something towards the middle of the seat. I stepped back and started shooting. I got scared and just pulled the trigger.”

“The police naturally went through the telephone, calling the numbers, just calling all of the numbers, and that is how he got connected with Antaeus Colbert,” Turner said.

However, Turner said Oshay Sims didn’t call Colbert, a story she said was corroborated by witnesses.

“There were a number of people who said they were with Oshay at the time of the shooting, and this was all in the discovery,” Turner said.

Records also reveal Colbert’s girlfriend who was in the car never identified Oshay as the shooter. 

“She did not identify him in a lineup,” Turner said. “She was present at the hearing in juvenile court where he was transferred to adult court. She did not identify him in court.”

There were also discrepancies about the suspect’s vehicle.

Sims said he was in a silver car. Witnesses said the car was black or burgundy, and Colbert’s girlfriend recalled an Illinois license plate.

WREG asked Turner about the gun referenced in Sims’ statement, the one Sims said he tossed on the ground. She said police never found a gun at the scene.

Police picked Sims up the morning of June 5, 2018, from his job at the Rock and Roll Cafe in Whitehaven. According to court records, Sims didn’t seem to know why he was there. 

He told police he’d tried to go swimming at an apartment pool, where he wasn’t a resident, so he thought maybe it was related to trespassing.

Turner said at some point, Sims’ mom got to 201, but police didn’t provide an explanation to her either.

“She said that she saw homicide written on a chair, and she said, ‘Are we in homicide? Is this about a homicide?’” Turner said. “Because she saw it on the chair. And they said, ‘Oh no, no, no, someone probably brought that chair in from somewhere else, this isn’t homicide.'”

According to Turner, Sims’ mother, who suffers from a mental illness, at some point told police she wasn’t feeling well.

“They got in the car, drove her to her house with Oshay still there, came back, and that’s when they started to question him,” Turner said.

Court records show the interrogation started around 11 a.m. and didn’t end until after 7:30 p.m.  Documents show for hours, Sims denied knowing anything about Colbert’s murder.

“And at this point, they start to tell him, if you don’t tell us what your involvement was, you’re going to prison for 51 years,” Turner said.

“One of the things that they told him was that if he gave them something, they would have to investigate it,” White said.

So after an eight-hour interrogation, Turner said, “At some point, he starts to make an admission, a confession, which the facts of his confession, the things he told them, didn’t even match the physical evidence.”

Turner said she thinks the confession was forced.

“Forced in a way that was not what you would think,” Turner said. “They didn’t beat him. They didn’t starve him. But it was definitely a coerced confession. Coercion meaning, if you don’t tell us something, you’re going to go to prison.”

However, court records show the homicide detective handling the interrogation read Sims his rights, had Sims read the Advice of Rights for himself and at some point advised him he could have an attorney present. 

White said that’s still not enough. 

“Adults don’t fully understand their rights,” White said. “You get false confessions from adults. In this instance, you had a 17-year-old who had just turned 17. You are not mentally prepared for that, not to mention, you don’t know the system, you don’t really know your rights.”

Plus, Sims told his attorneys police said they had video. Video, Turner said, he was hoping would exonerate him. But Turner discovered that video didn’t exist.

“When I looked at the surveillance that I’d retrieved, I noticed that it was the wrong day,” she said. “I said, surely they didn’t get the video from the wrong day.”

Police obtained surveillance video from a nearby restaurant, Smacker’s, but it was from June 1. The shooting occurred on June 2. 

Turner said she met with the prosecutor, along with an investigator from the district attorney’s office.

“We kind of went through everything and saw that there had been an injustice,” Turner said.

Thirteen months after his arrest, a judge ordered Oshay Sims released on his own recognizance. 

Stevenson recalls the moment she saw Sims back at Fairley High.

“I walk out, and he’s standing there, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, and I just hugged him,” Stevenson said.

White said Sims jumped right back into school, started ACT prep and got his spot back in the drum section of his beloved Fairley Band.

“I was just amazed at how he handled it and how he mentally processed it,” White said.

As Sims started his senior year, his attorneys continued their push to clear his name.

“I was never told that for certain that they (the charges) would be dismissed, but that was the understanding that I had,” Turner said.

That never happened. Two months after his release, 18-year-old Oshay Sims was killed in a car accident.

“So we went from a really high, to a really quick low,” White said.

White said meeting Sims changed her life.

“It was this village for Oshay, but it was like, as much as I felt like we fed into him, he fed into us, you know, he really did motivate me,” White said. “I wanted to be a better lawyer because of him, I wanted to be a better person because of him.”

It’s why Sims’ case and others like it became the inspiration for his attorneys to advocate for juvenile criminal justice reform.

“It does not make any sense that you would have a child who is facing a serious charge, a felony, and in this instance a homicide, and you would take this 16, 17-year-old child and say, okay, talk, without a lawyer, without an adult,” White said.

“I think that had the interrogation been audio or video recorded, then he probably would not have been charged,” Turner said. “I think some of the way that the questioning happened would not have happened in that way if they had known that they were being recorded.”

The Memphis Police Department just implemented a policy last July requiring all interrogations be recorded.

Rep. London Lamar and Sen. Raumesh Akbari have introduced bills that would require law enforcement agencies statewide to record interrogations with minors and mandate a parent or guardian be present during that questioning.

“If we have this video recording in place, it makes sure, it creates a level of protection for children, so they won’t admit to something that they did not do,” Rep. Lamar said.

“I had an individual come up to me and he talked about, and this is really what pushed me to do the legislation, he talked about a parent in one of these more rural counties where they were there, they were outside the door, and their child was being interrogated, and law enforcement would not let them in,” Sen. Akbari said.

It’s stories like these Turner and White hope to hear fewer of in the years to come.

“You have a young man that ended up being released because the confession didn’t corroborate or didn’t match the evidence,” Turner said. “But now what does that mean? Has justice been done when you don’t have the person that committed the crime.”

WREG requested an interview with the Memphis Police Department, hoping to discuss the implementation of its new video interrogation policy and get answers to several questions about the Sims case. MPD wouldn’t agree to an interview but was supposed to respond to a set of written questions from WREG.

By the time of broadcast for this story, MPD had not responded.

A spokesperson did say Sims was the sole suspect, and they believe the evidence points to him as Colbert’s killer.

WREG spoke to Colbert’s mother and sister, and they said we were the only people they’ve heard from about his case in more than a year. 

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