Lawrence McKinney spent 31 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. He then spent nine years seeking exoneration.
Through persistence, at age 61, McKinney has become the first person in Tennessee to receive the maximum award allowed by state law as restitution for a wrongful imprisonment claim — $1 million.
In 1978, he was convicted of rape and burglary and was sentenced to prison for 115 years. In 2009, DNA testing proved his innocence and ruled him out as a suspect in the case, and he was released.
McKinney was given only $75, with an option of receiving up to $1 million, if the Tennessee Parole Board heard his exoneration case. The board had previously denied hearing the case, twice.
Five years later, in 2016, a parole board unanimously voted not to recommend McKinney be exonerated, despite the judicial ruling finding him innocent.
Melissa McDonald, a spokeswoman for former Gov. Phil Bredesen, previously said that Bredesen “did not act on McKinney’s first attempt to be exonerated after a negative recommendation by the Tennessee Board of Parole,” according to The Tennessean.
As the governor in Tennessee has the sole authority to grant, deny or not act on a wrongful imprisonment application, last year, Gov. Bill Haslam made a difference in McKinney’s case.
Haslam went against the parole board’s vote and exonerated McKinney in December. He and his legal team were then able to ask the state for the maximum compensation.
McKinney’s attorney for the past six years, David Raybin, argued that his client actually deserved more than $1 million.
“Under any definition of just compensation for over 31 years wrongful incarceration for the horrendous crime of rape, $1,000,000.00 is appropriate,” he wrote in December. “Mr. McKinney is entitled to no more under the law as it stands, but justice dictates no less.”
The Tennessee Board of Claims unanimously voted last week to award him $1 million.
“I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for 40 years, this is probably one of the most moving events I’ve ever experienced,” Raybin told The Huffington Post. “To have someone in prison that long and to fight for years, for six years to get him some justice, it has just been an enormous undertaking.”
To pay attorneys fees and debts, and to allow him to purchase a vehicle, McKinney will receive $353,000 up front.
“The remaining $647,000 will fund a monthly annuity that will pay McKinney $3,350 per month for life starting May 1, according to the recommendation presented to the board of claims,” The Tennessean reports.
The payment is guaranteed for a minimum of 10 years. His wife or his estate will get the monthly payments if he dies within that 10-year period.
A report from the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project between the University of California, Irvine; University of Michigan Law School; and Michigan State University College of Law, found that Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people and are also likely to spend longer in prison before being exonerated for their crimes.
On Tuesday at a press conference McKinney, speaking alongside his wife Dorothy, said his faith sustained him and he no longer harbored any anger for being wrongly accused.
“When you become a new Christian and are born again you leave the past behind, the anger … everything,” he said.
Some of McKinney’s supporters included state Sen. Mark Pody, (R-Mt. Juliet) and members of McKinney’s Wilson County church.
“It’s vindication for all that he went through,” Raybin, who represents McKinney along with Jack Lowery, said on Tuesday. “When he was released from prison, they gave him a change of clothes and $75 and sent him on his way.”
“He’s so used to injustice,” John Hunn, McKinney’s pastor, told CNN, “that I think he’s really trying to get his head around what justice looks like.”