KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
DNA test shows he didn't commit rape
By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post
Thirty-one years, nine months, 18 days and 12 hours.
Lawrence McKinney, 54, a Lebanon resident for the past three months, knows exactly how much time he served in Tennessee prisons. He shouldn’t have served one second.
He was arrested Oct. 7, 1977, on charges of rape and burglary, and from that day until July 20 this year, spent more than half of his life behind bars, nearly 32 years.
“He may have served the longest sentence on record in the state that has ever been reversed,” said his attorney Jack Lowery during an interview Tuesday morning at the offices of Lowery, Lowery & Cherry on the Lebanon Square.
But DNA tests have put McKinney’s past behind him, and he is all about the future.
“I had to change my life over to God. God says you can’t hold no punches. People make mistakes,” McKinney said. “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.”
Sentenced to 110 years for a crime that occurred in Memphis, his hometown, he learned in January that DNA tests cleared him of charges. It was six months before he was released. On July 20, the State of Tennessee gave him a petty cash voucher for $75 and a court order release and #83935 was once more a free man and no longer a number.
“They ran a DNA test on him and found out he was not the person who committed those crimes,” said Lowery, who has begun the process of applying for exoneration to the state. He will follow that up with a file for a claim of $1 million for wrongful imprisonment, the maximum allowed by state law.
Lowery began representing McKinney a month ago through the connection of McKinney’s girlfriend of five years, Dorothy Steverson of Lebanon. She had a nephew who knew McKinney in prison.
“We started writing and became pen pals,” she said. “I just wanted to let him know there was somebody out here interested in him and about what was going on.”
DNA testing was not available when McKinney was charged. But last year the Innocence Project out of New York heard about his case and paid for the tests.
“It was a gang rape was what it amounted to,” said Lowery about the long ago crime. “There were three participants, and they had him included. But when they ran the DNA, the other two were 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.”
The 6-foot-4 McKinney has black hair, a thin, black moustache and sideburns that are beginning to gray. On occasion, he rocks gently back and forth in his chair during the interview.
He has no driver’s license yet, and it has taken him three months to get his Social Security card back. He’s looking hard for work and still adjusting to what amounts to life in a different world from the one he used to know. He has yet to use a cell phone.
What has changed the most?
“Everything,” McKinney said. “There’s those little white things in the street when you drive your car. A whole lot has changed, but I’m learning. She tells me a whole lot. I got a best friend by my side, somebody to keep me out of trouble, to show me the right way.”
“He has had the most positive attitude for anyone who’s been in prison for 31 years,” Lowery said. “He’s not mad, not carrying any grudges. The biggest thing he wants to do is live a good life and get a job.”
No apologies have come from the state.
“Not yet,” McKinney’s lawyer said. “We’re hoping the apology will come in the form of that $1 million cap.”
News sources report that as of early 2008, more than 200 people across the country have been exonerated by DNA tests since 1989.
Editor’s Note: Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.