Wrongfully imprisoned for 31 years, Lawrence McKinney seeks exoneration

DNA evidence won Lawrence McKinney his release in 2008. He's battling to finally clear his name and receive compensation for decades of wrongful imprisonment.

Erik Schelzig/AP
Gov. Bill Haslam (l.) and Finance Commissioner Larry Martin attend budget hearings at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., in November. Governor Haslam will decide whether Lawrence McKinney, who served more than 31 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, will be exonerated and have the opportunity to receive up to $1 million in compensation.

Lawrence McKinney served more than 31 years in prison – for a crime he did not commit. Now, he’s trying one last time to formally clear his name.

In 1978, the victim of a gang rape identified Mr. McKinney in court as one of her attackers. Then-22-year-old McKinney, who lived near the victim’s Memphis, Tenn., apartment, where the attack took place, was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. His co-defendant was also handed a jail sentence. Three decades later, DNA tests of the woman’s bed sheets identified stains from three people, including the victim and the co-defendant – but not McKinney. His conviction was vacated, the charges against him were dismissed, and he was released in July 2009.

Since then, McKinney has been fighting to be formally exonerated. With exoneration would come the final clearing of his name, and the opportunity to be compensated for the time he was wrongfully imprisoned. But exoneration currently looks unlikely: The Tennessee parole board voted against recommending the move to Gov. Bill Haslam, and the governor has yet to exonerate anyone.

"All I ask is that I be treated right and fair for what has happened to me," McKinney told CNN. "I didn't do nothing, and I just want to be treated right."

Even after McKinney was released and the charges vacated, it took him another five years to clear his name, according to the Innocence Project. If he were officially exonerated, Tennessee law states that McKinney could be eligible for $1 million in compensation. McKinney, who received just a $75 check from the Tennessee Department of Corrections when he was released, has been working odd jobs at his church to pay the bills, CBS News reported.

The compensation money might help McKinney continue on the path he has forged for himself since his release. In 2010, he married his wife, who had been a pen pal during his time in prison, CNN reported. He plans to become a preacher, inspiring others with his own story of endurance in prison, a fellow parishioner wrote on a Change.org petition calling for his exoneration.

“With my situation, I feel like people could get the hope to make it through anything,” McKinney told parishioner Jared Felkins for the petition, which has amassed 11,400 signatures.

But McKinney still faces an uphill battle to achieve exoneration. The Tennessee Board of Parole, which makes exoneration recommendations to the governor, has twice recommended against it – first in 2010, and again, unanimously, in September.

"After considering all of the evidence, the board did not find clear and convincing evidence of innocence and declined to recommend clemency in this matter,” explained Melissa McDonald, spokesperson for the Tennessee Board of Parole, to CNN.

Possibly playing into that decision, McKinney’s pastor John Hunn told CNN, was a list of infractions McKinney reportedly committed while in jail, including the alleged assault of another inmate.

"Lawrence has told that story at our church," said Pastor Hunn, who testified on McKinney's behalf. "He doesn't deny that story. He was in prison, man."

Without the parole board’s recommendation, Governor Haslam can still exonerate McKinney. However, Haslam has yet to exonerate anyone. There have been just two exonerations in Tennessee in the past 16 years, both just before the end of former governor Phil Bredesen’s term in 2011.

Nevertheless, McKinney’s attorney remains hopeful.

“There has been one mistake made that sent him to prison. I trust that another is not made that does not allow him exoneration,” said Jack Lowery, according to CBS News.

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