Lawrence McKinney’s exoneration hopes now rest solely with Gov. Bill Haslam after the board pointed to actions prior to his 2009 release from prison as reasons against a positive recommendation. McKinney was released from prison in July 2009 thanks to DNA evidence after spending 31 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit in 1977 in Memphis.
In 2014, a Shelby County judge expunged McKinney’s record, but he remained without exoneration.
The then-Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended against exoneration when it conducted a clemency hearing for McKinney in 2010. However, only the governor can grant exoneration, according to Melissa McDonald, Tennessee Board of Parole communications director. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen did not act on the case at the time. However, McKinney was allowed to apply again under Haslam.
“I have to say as Mr. McKinney’s attorney, I didn’t expect some of the things to happen in this parole hearing that happened. One, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a parole hearing where the prosecutor had vote in the conclusion. I call him a prosecutor because he is a member of the board, but he certainly acted that way,” said attorney Jack Lowery, who represented McKinney, along with David Raybin.
Lowery referenced board member Tim Gobble, who conducted the hearing. The other members of the seven-person board include Roberta Castoff, Gay Greyson, Richard Montgomery, Gary Faulcon, Barrett Rich and Zane Duncan.
In his role as conductor, Gobble led the questioning about various things involved in the case, and even McKinney’s criminal record before the incident in 1977.
Questions regarding the night of the incident surrounded McKinney and other suspect’s conflicting reports of where they were before and during the time of the crime. McKinney contended he was at home the entire night of the incident until about 15 minutes before he and his co-defendant, Michael Yancy, were arrested. Meanwhile, according to records, Yancy’s mother said the pair went to a club and returned to her house about an hour before the rape and burglary happened.
McKinney said he did not know about, assist with or was present during the rape in 1977.
The board also questioned evidence used in McKinney’s re-trial, with Gobble keying in on “missing” evidence, specifically a second piece of DNA evidence and vaginal swab results. The first and third pieces of evidence excluded McKinney as a possible suspect, according to Lorna McClusky, McKinney’s defense attorney with the Innocence Project.
McClusky also highlighted the “missing” pieces of evidence were never reported. She said every piece of submitted evidence excluded McKinney, and the only incriminating piece was victim identification. However, Gobble said the suspect’s description fit McKinney “to a tee.”
Gobble said the evidence included a “big gaping hole,” and DNA evidence is not conclusive for guilt or innocence.
Rich questioned the evidence’s storage and transit between the time of the original trial and re-trial. Gobble continued his probe into McKinney’s role into the sexual assault as he pointed to various letters written by McKinney to the board while incarcerated, one of which he said included McKinney expressing remorse about the incident.
He also pointed to McKinney’s previous appearances before the board, and the meeting where McKinney admitted to the crime, but didn't mention various key things about the night. McKinney said after 28 years in prison and the death of his mother, he lied – from advice from other prisoners – because he believed that would be the only way he would be paroled.
“Unfortunately, what they didn’t recognize is people do admit to their alleged crimes when they’re trying to get paroled. That happens all the time,” Raybin said.
“I think a lot of irrelevant evidence was allowed in the hearing that had nothing to do with whether this man should have been exonerated. I think what they’ve done is disregard DNA evidence, which is recognized in our court system,” Lowery said.
The board also noted 97 disciplinary actions McKinney received while in prison, which he described as survival tactics. Lowery said if he were imprisoned for something he never did, he would have gotten in more trouble than McKinney.
Rich said Lowery and Raybin had to show “clear and conclusive” evidence that McKinney did not commit or was a part of the crime, and the board ultimately decided evidence presented did not accomplish that standard.
“The governor is not bound to find anything by clear and convincing evidence. That is a standard the parole board made up on its own. The fortunate thing about this is that this is not a binding decision. This is just a recommendation of a board that looked at some evidence and ignored what we all recognize as clear and convincing evidence of people innocence of DNA,” Raybin said.
Rabin said the group would contact Haslam this week about McKinney’s exoneration.
“We have an opportunity to go to the governor. We’re going to ask the governor to exonerate this man. He is not bound by this board’s decision, and I think the public support for Mr. McKinney is overwhelming, and that the governor should exonerate him,” Raybin said.
According to the Innocence Project, the agency that forced DNA testing that eventually cleared McKinney, Tennessee state law allows “a maximum of $1 million for the entirety of a wrongful incarceration. The board of claims, in determining the amount of compensation, shall consider the person’s physical and mental suffering and loss of earnings.”
When McKinney was released, he received a $13,556 payment from the federal government. However, citing the payment was a mistake, the government started garnishing McKinney’s wages when he worked at Lifeway Christian warehouse. McKinney has since paid that debt in full.
“This isn’t about the money. He’s never once said anything about the money,” said Immanuel Baptist Church Pastor John Hunn.