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After 31 years behind bars, life begins anew for Lebanon man

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The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and was created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992. The project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. As a clinic, law students handle case work while supervised by a team of attorneys and clinic staff.

Most of the clients are poor, forgotten and have used up all legal avenues for relief. The hope they all have is that biological evidence from their cases still exists and can be subjected to DNA testing. All Innocence Project clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not DNA testing of evidence could prove their claims of innocence. Thousands currently await evaluation of their cases.

Post-conviction DNA exonerations 

Leading causes of wrongful convictions

By KEN BECKSpecial to the Wilson Post

For all practical purposes, life ran out for 22-year-old Lawrence Edward McKinney on Oct. 7, 1977, as he stepped behind the steel bars of a jail cell.

Nearly 32 years later, on July 20, 2009, his life started for a second time. Freed by DNA tests, the state of Tennessee released him from the remainder of a 110-year term for rape and burglary.

And the first thing the 54-year-old Memphis native, today a resident of Lebanon, desired most?

“I wanted some donuts and coffee,” said the 6-foot-4 tall McKinney on Tuesday as he discussed his case with his lawyer Jack Lowery on his left and his girlfriend Dorothy Steverson on his right.

But some of the things he needs most won’t come quite as easily.

A driver’s license and job hopefully will come soon.

A settlement from the state may take months or years, and adjusting to the society he vanished from for 31 years and nine months will take the rest of his life.

However, he says one good thing did happen during his incarceration, the best thing that could have happened: behind bars in 2001 he found faith in God.

“The only thing I learned while in prison is I found God. I found God. That’s the best thing in the world. When you find God, you put all the other business to the side. Because he’s the only one you got to prove yourself to,” McKinney said.

Ask McKinney how long he served and he’s got it figured out to the hour.

“Thirty-one years, nine months, 18 days and 12 hours,” he will tell you.

“He may have served the longest sentence on record in the state that has ever been reversed,” says Lowery, who has started the process of applying for exoneration to the state. Next he will file for a claim of $1 million for wrongful imprisonment, the maximum allowed by state law.

Born on 5-5-55, McKinney, a Memphis native, has spent more than half of his life in 12 or 13 correctional institutions across the state. When he walked out of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville this past July 20, he held a petty cash voucher for $75 and a court-ordered release. Today inmate #83935 is a free man, and he has a very close friend.

He and Lebanon’s Dorothy Steverson began exchanging letters five years ago. The friendship blossomed into love and now they are engaged, while she also serves as his mentor in helping him readjust to a different culture from which he left approximately 11,244 days ago. 

“My nephew (who was in prison with McKinney) gave Lawrence my number and we started writing and became pen pals,” Steverson said. “I just wanted to let him know there was somebody out here interested in him and about what was going on.

“I know how hard it is for him now to go on because everything has changed so much.  It’s like learning everything all over again because when he went in there were so many things we didn’t have like microwaves, cell phones. I’m patient with him. I’m trying to get him really ready for the world,” said McKinney’s companion, whose brother recommended they use Lowery for his attorney.

“When I got locked up, they didn’t have no such thing as DNA,” McKinney said.

In 2008, the Innocence Project in New York, a nonprofit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, looked into his case and paid to have the DNA testing done. (Since 2000, there have been 179 exonerations.)

“They got his DNA and submitted it, and it rang a bell,” said Lowery, who began representing McKinney about a month ago. McKinney believes his conviction was based on misidentification.

“They said she (the victim) identified me when they were going to the police car. They went by her word,” he said.

(The whereabouts of the victim today are unknown.)

The Innocence Project reports that eyewitness misidentification testimony has been a factor in 74 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions.

McKinney doesn’t believe the jurors’ decision was based on racism as the jury was composed of black and white members.

Tests of biological stains from the victim’s bedspread sheet revealed a mixture of sperm stains from three people.

“It was a gang rape was what it amounted to,” Lowery said of the case McKinney was tangled in. “There were three participants and they had him included. But when they ran the DNA, the other were two confirmed but he was excluded. They had another unknown male in there. He was not the third male in the situation. That was confirmed by DNA tests.”

McKinney was informed in January that the DNA tests were complete and proved him innocent. A Memphis lawyer told him he would be out of prison within two or three week, but instead it was six months before the courts heard his case.

He doesn’t have a lot to say about his prison experience as he wishes to put the past to rest. “I can’t put my mind back in that situation. I want to forget about all of that. I want to start a new life, forget about the past.”

He had worked as a forklift operator before he went behind the walls, and in prison did industrial cleaning, cleaning floors and walls.

He persevered over the years because of the faith of his mother and later his faith in God.

“The first 16 years it was my mama because she would come and tell me ‘don’t give up.’ She came to see me every year on my birthday.”

His mother died 15 years ago, and he was allowed to go review her body but not to attend the burial at the cemetery.

“I just didn’t care no more until 2001, and then I changed my life. I knowed the truth but they had me in there. I didn’t care,” said McKinney.

It was at that point that he became a believer.

“I had to change my life over to God. God says you can’t hold no punches. People make mistakes. I can’t  live in the past. What happened, happened, I  could not change that; Only thing I can do is try live further with my life.”

Steverson was the first person McKinney called when he received word that he would be set free. The first thing he said, “I’m ready to go home.”

Release means that McKinney can come and go as he pleases, and once again he can enjoy the nighttime skies.

“In there they had so many rules and regulations. At 8 o’clock you had to go into the house. … You could not see no stars in the sky. Now I come out and look at the sky and the stars that God created.”

McKinney weighed 226 pounds when he entered prison and 189 pounds upon his release. He’s enjoying the home cooking that Steverson supplies. He finally got his Social Security card back after three months of waiting.

His two most immediate needs are getting a driver’s license and finding a job.  

“When he came out, of course, he’s unemployed and has been in prison for 31 years,” said Lowery. “When he goes to apply for job, he has to disclose that. As he tries to explain to them that he has been exonerated, it’s a difficult situation because an employer probably isn’t going to buy that story when you look at him and have him say, ‘I been in prison for 31 years, and they turned me out because they had the wrong person.’

“He has applied for Social Security and disability, and they wrote him back and said you do not qualify because you have not worked. The reason he has not worked is because he’s been in prison for 31 years. It’s a catch-22 for him. He’s not entitled to any benefits because he’s been in prison. He’s been here trying desperately to get a job and he really wants to work.

“He has had the most positive attitude for anyone who’s been in prison for 31 years. He’s not mad, not carrying any grudges. The biggest thing that he wants to do is live a good  life and get a job,” Lowery said.

Steverson notes that her boyfriend loves being out of doors.

“He likes being outside. He loves working out in the yard with the flower. He loves being outside,” says Steverson. “Most of the time he is outside doing something.”    

Being in prison, says McKinney, “It made me take life very serious and take people very serious. It got me dedicated to church. I got myself in church eight years ago. Before that I was living the prison life.

“I can’t get bitter about nothing because that’s the past. If I get bitter about the past, I‘m stretching myself out. I thank God every day for giving me opportunity to have me out. I kind of gave up, but God showed me, ‘Don’t worry about men’s idea. I’m gonna show you my idea.’ He opened the door for me.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

Post-conviction DNA exonerationsThere have been 245 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.

Races of the 245 exonerees:146 African Americans71 Caucasians21 Latinos2 Asian American5 whose race is unknown

• The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 34 states; since 2000, there have been 179 exonerations.• Seventeen of the 245 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.• The average length of time served by exonerees is 12 years. • The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 26.• The true suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 104 of the DNA exoneration cases.• Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued — until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.• About half of the people exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated. Twenty-seven states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to compensate people who were wrongfully incarcerated. Awards under these statutes vary from state to state.

Leading causes of wrongful convictions1. Eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 74 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions. 2. Unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in approximately 50 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.  3. False confessions and incriminating statements and testimony from snitches.Source: The Innocence Project at www.innocenceproject.org

 

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