Governor exonerates Lawrence McKinney

Jared Felkins • Dec 20, 2017 at 12:52 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam signed an executive order Wednesday morning to exonerate Lawrence McKinney, who was convicted nearly 40 years ago of crimes he didn’t commit.

Haslam’s grant of executive clemency for McKinney, of Lebanon, came after the state Board of Parole ruled it would not recommend exoneration following a hearing in September 2016. McKinney will now be eligible to apply for wrongful-imprisonment compensation from the state of up to $1 million.

“Today I granted Lawrence McKinney’s request for gubernatorial exoneration from his 1978 convictions,” Haslam said Wednesday in a statement. “Though the facts of this case are complex, and reasonable minds may draw different conclusions from them, ultimately I respect the determinations of the Shelby County Criminal Court and district attorney general that Mr. McKinney was not guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted and would not have been prosecuted if the DNA testing results had been available at the time of trial. Mr. McKinney was released after more than 30 years in prison when the court set aside his convictions in 2009.

“In the eyes of the judicial system, Mr. McKinney is innocent. While I appreciate the hard work and recommendations of the Board of Parole, in this case I defer to the finding of the court charged with determining Mr. McKinney’s guilt or innocence.”

Although the Board of Parole didn’t have the ultimate power to decide McKinney’s exoneration, the group’s decision appeared to strike a blow at the time to the wrongfully convicted man’s chances of clemency from Haslam.

“It was very emotional. It was nine years of effort, nine years of war to stand behind this man and it was the right thing,” attorney David Raybin said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “You asked, ‘why did the governor go against the parole board.’ Because it was the right thing to do, and he was relying on evidence.”

There remains a chance McKinney could not receive the full $1 million compensation he’s eligible for, but Raybin said he believes he should receive the full amount. 

“The statute is mandatory that he receives compensation,” Raybin said. “I have handled the other case in Tennessee about six years ago like this, and they awarded the person who had been incarcerated for, I think, two or three years, several hundred thousand dollars. He’s been in prison for more than 30 years, so we’ve more than met the cap on this case.”

McKinney, 61, said the exoneration was in the spirit of Christmas. 

“It’s a good merry Christmas to me because of Jesus Christ. That’s what Christmas really stands for — Jesus Christ. I want to thank both my lawyers. I want to thank my pastor and my church. I want to thank my wife for being a pen pal with me and being with me from the year 2009 until now. I’m just blessed,” said McKinney, who said God put the right people in his life. 

McKinney also helped Senator-elect Mark Pody and Gov. Bill Haslam. 

McKinney said the exoneration symbolized one important thing for him.

“It means that, now, I’m a citizen of the United States,” said McKinney, who said the exoneration means he can travel and spread the word of God. 

McKinney gave more credit to his church, Immanuel Baptist Church, who he said has supported him since his release and kept his spirits high. He said he was not surprised about Haslam’s exoneration for one reason.

“I ain’t never doubted it because God is in control,” he said. “You can’t be surprised when you serve the Lord because he’s always on time.”

“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 at the time.

Raybin represented McKinney during the September 2016 hearing, along with Jack Lowery.

McKinney was released from prison in July 2009 thanks to DNA evidence after he spent 31 years of a 100-year sentence in prison for rape and first-degree burglary he didn’t commit in 1977 in Memphis.

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 in Nashville. In 2014, McKinney’s record with the state was finally expunged.

However, 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.”

McKinney has yet to see a penny of the potential $1 million, but with clemency granted, he is eligible to apply for the compensation.

The then-Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended against exoneration when it conducted a clemency hearing for McKinney in 2010. In 2014, a Shelby County judge expunged McKinney’s record, but he remained without exoneration.

Melissa McDonald, Tennessee Board of Parole communications director, said only the governor could grant exoneration, and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen did not act on the case at the time.

McKinney was allowed to reapply under Haslam’s administration.

Jennifer Donnals, Haslam’s press secretary, confirmed Haslam received McKinney’s exoneration report in November 2016.

McKinney remained in high spirits following the September 2016 hearing.

“I got a pastor and a church that’s going to stand behind me. I’m going to do my best to go out there and show people who Jesus Christ is. I have a beautiful wife. She always has my back and helping me,” he said. “I don’t need to let this be no stumbling block for me because God put a lawyer on my right and left side, and my pastor is always going to inspire me with the word of God.”

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