Lawrence McKinney And His Life: Worth $75 In Tennessee
December 20, 2016 (Fault Lines) – How much is your life worth? Even when you have one of those crappy days that makes you want to just give up, how much is the ability to walk outside worth? Eat what you want? Pull the covers up over your head? How much is your freedom worth, no matter what you decide to do with it?
Lawrence McKinney is being taught a harsh lesson about how much his life is worth. According to a Tennessee parole board, it’s not worth shit worth about $75. Or at least the part the government took from him is.
McKinney spent 31 years in prison before he was released based on DNA evidence. In 1977, a Memphis woman was raped. The victim reported that two men raped her and she identified McKinney and another man as the rapists. He was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison.
When he was convicted, McKinney recalled, “I still could not believe it because I thought it was a dream or something.”
More like a nightmare. On the off chance you are one of those people who thinks prison isn’t so bad because it has a TV or something, think again. Prison sucks. It sucks even when somebody deserves it. But imagine going there for a crime you didn’t commit. For three decades.
It’s about the worst fate one can imagine. A 29-year old walks in to prison. A 60-year old man walks out. A life completely wasted behind prison bars.
In 2008, DNA testing was done on the bed where the rape occurred. For the uninitiated, modern DNA testing means there is almost no way to commit a crime like rape without leaving some DNA somewhere. Good for the police. Bad for the criminals. Really good for the wrongfully accused. The testing excluded McKinney as one of the rapists.
Prosecutors often seem to think DNA is the gold standard for forensic evidence, as long as it supports a conviction. If it might set somebody free, it becomes as reliable as any other bullshit evidence the defense concocted. In a show of humility, prosecutors in McKinney’s case took a different tack. They let it go.
In 2008, DNA testing of evidence scientifically excluded McKinney as a suspect. Prosecutors said, “if this evidence had been available … there would have been no prosecution.”
Shelby County, Tennesee prosecutors deserve credit for putting a man’s innocence above whatever it is that makes prosecutors want to slam the door shut on claims of wrongful conviction. The State of Tennessee, on the other hand, should be ashamed of itself.
McKinney is eligible for up to a million dollars in compensation, but he has to be exonerated. A Tennessee parole board makes that call. And as easy as it is to warehouse somebody for decades for a crime they didn’t commit, reversing that is much harder.
…the parole board, which hears such cases, has rejected his request twice.
“In an exoneration hearing we have to have a lot of evidence, clear and convincing,” said Patsy Bruce, who served on Tennessee’s parole board for 12 years and heard McKinney’s first exoneration case.
What’s the hold up, Patsy? Some critical evidence we don’t know about? Something the court didn’t hear that convinces you maybe you know something more about this case?
When asked why the judgments of the judge and district attorney weren’t convincing enough, she replied, “Because they didn’t notice that they didn’t test everything ordered by the original judge to be tested.”
Could it be that Bruce’s in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system has given her insight into this DNA testing that the jaded courtroom players are missing? She was, after all, an event manager and film producer. But apparently the judge and prosecutor knew exactly what they were testing, probably because, unlike Bruce, they actually do know a little about the criminal justice system.
Prosecutors say the two samples not tested either had no DNA or were so degraded tests could not be performed.
“I have not been convinced he is innocent,” Bruce said.
So Bruce doesn’t want to declare McKinney innocent based on evidence of his innocence, because of evidence that wouldn’t show…anything. Sounds like exactly what you get when a Nashville entertainment executive is put into a position that involves serious consideration of serious problems.
McKinney’s attorney has appealed the board’s decision to the Governor. According to Rob Briley, an attorney who has represented a Tennessee man in a compensation claim for wrongful imprisonment, that is no easy hurdle.
“They should increase the compensation and lower the bar to be considered” for exoneration, he said. “That is not easy to get from the governor.”
The state has paid only two exoneration claims, [Clark] McMillan’s and about $142,000 to a man in 2012 who was exonerated after spending two years and three months in prison after being wrongly convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual battery of a 9-year-old.
If McKinney were to get the maximum allowed compensation for serving time behind bars, he would be awarded about $32,000 per year for time he should not have served. There may not be any wrongdoing on the State’s part, but that doesn’t matter. Tennessee collected the 31 years from McKinney, so Tennessee needs to pay it back. And even at a million bucks, that payback is a pittance.
As mistakes are discovered in the criminal justice system, we have to understand the real cost of those mistakes. Lives wasted away in prison. While there may not be any amount of money that will make the wrongfully imprisoned whole, money is usually all the system has to offer.
Patsy Bruce and the rest of the parole board should remember who they represent. Government is never bigger than when it prosecutes and convicts one of its citizens. But it’s never smaller than when it gets it wrong and refuses to make it right.