A man who spent 31 years in prison for a rape in Memphis that he did not commit is at the center of a battle with the state of Tennessee for compensation that supporters say he is legally owed after being robbed of decades of his life.
Lawrence McKinney, who is now 60 and works part time at his church to help support his ailing 75-year-old wife, said he trusts in God that money will come through to help pay the bills, including medical costs for his wife, Dorothy. But members of his church and two state lawmakers say they are boiling mad and tired of getting the runaround from both the Tennessee Board of Parole and the office of Gov. Bill Haslam.
McKinney was robbed of having children, building a job, getting an education and putting aside money for retirement, said Rep. Mark Pody, a Republican who represents the former prisoner’s district in Lebanon, Tennessee. Tennessee, Pody said, is morally and legally bound to compensate him.
“Our state had him in prison incorrectly. We’ve got to make this right,” the lawmaker said Wednesday.
McKinney was released from prison in 2009 after DNA evidence showed that he did not rape a woman in Memphis in 1977.
The soft-spoken McKinney said there was a time in prison when he was angry, but found peace when he embraced religion behind bars. He was released from prison with a $75 check but couldn’t cash it for three months because he had no birth certificate, no driver’s license or no ID, he said. He didn’t get his driver’s license until age 58 and married a year after he got out of prison.
Still, he believes things will work out for him.
“I just have to live one day at a time and put my trust in God,” he said.
At a press conference Thursday, Pody, the pastor of McKinney’s church, and state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said they can’t understand why McKinney has been out of prison for seven years and still has not been compensated.
Under Tennessee law, some people who are wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit are entitled to compensation of up to $1 million. But to get the money, they have to be officially exonerated by the governor, even if a court has already found them not guilty and let them out of prison.
Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to officially exonerate McKinney. Pody said he’s been told by Haslam’s office that the governor wants to wait for the Board of Parole to consider the case. The lawmaker said he called the press conference because the Board of Parole keeps giving him conflicting information about when it might hear the case.
Haslam’s office won’t act unless the Parole Board does — although state law allows him to exonerate people without getting a nonbinding recommendation from the Parole Board.
“It is the administration’s policy to consider executive clemency requests after receiving a recommendation from the Board of Probation and Parole,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in an email.
The board turned down McKinney’s request for exoneration in 2010.
“Very few things shock me anymore, but I was stunned that they denied that man exoneration,” said David Raybin, an attorney who represented McKinney in 2010. He said then-Gov. Phil Bredesen followed the recommendation of the Parole Board and did not grant exoneration.
It’s not clear when the Board of Parole might hear the case again. A spokeswoman said members are busy with thousands of other cases.
“It is a possibility that we could have a hearing as soon as September, but it’s also a possibility that their work won’t be complete by then, so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Board of Parole spokeswoman Melissa McDonald said.