At least the Hillsborough County attorney’s office has admitted it doesn’t have enough evidence to try Dean McKee again for the 1987 murder of a homeless man in Tampa. Today, McKee is a free man but he spent 30 years in prison and the actual murderer is still free.
The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren determined it lacked the evidence to proceed to a new trial, said Estella Gray, a spokeswoman. She also noted that even if a jury had convicted McKee a second time, he would not face an automatic life sentence because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime and state laws on punishing juveniles have changed.
The decision caps more than a decade of legal wrangling that, in recent years, produced DNA results and witness testimony that indicated McKee’s older brother may have had a greater role in the crime than previously disclosed.
In 2007, he filed a handwritten petition for DNA testing. The testing was granted and results showed that DNA from the fishing sinker and from under victim Walker’s fingernails did not come from Dean McKee.
A former girlfriend of Scott McKee later testified that she was with the brothers the night of Walker’s death. She spoke of Dean pulling Scott off the victim. She also said Scott McKee told her he and his father arranged to let Dean take the fall for the crime, believing that as a juvenile he would face less punishment.
So, how did such a miscarriage of justice happen? For Dean McKee it was a confluence of bad luck, poor judgement, poor police work, and lawyers who apparently didn’t do their jobs.
Can this happen? Does this happen? The answer to both questions is unfortunately yes. DNA testing was available in 1987 so it seems odd that that didn’t figure into the defense strategy. In 1987, a Florida rapist became the first individual in the United States to be convicted on the basis of DNA evidence. Two years later, DNA evidence exonerated the first individual – an Illinois man named Gary Dotson, who had served a decade in prison for a rape he did not commit. Though Dotson’s exoneration was not heralded with great fanfare outside his hometown of Chicago, it was the beginning of a new era of accuracy and certainty in revealing and proving claims of wrongful conviction.
This is a sad story that demonstrates what the old Warren Zevon song says, “Send lawyers, guns, and money” if you’re in legal trouble. May not need the guns but you better have the money and the lawyers.