by Hannah Sayle
After 15 years in prison, 10 of them on death row, Timothy McKinney walked out of jail a free man today.
McKinney was convicted of the 1997 shooting death of off-duty MPD officer, Donald Williams, at Crumpy’s Comedy Club in North Memphis. His case garnered much national attention amid allegations that prosecutors suppressed key evidence in McKinney's 1999 trial and that his conviction was too heavily predicated on fallible eyewitness testimony.
Indeed, ten years after his conviction, questions about whether McKinney was adequately represented by his defense counsel in the 1999 trial led to an appeal that overturned his original conviction. In subsequent retrials, two hung juries were unable to re-convict Timothy McKinney of the murder of Officer Williams. The most recent trial ended last month with a hung jury — the majority of the jury members in favor of McKinney's acquittal.
"During the period of time between the initial trial and the retrials, many of the State’s witnesses, including
the State’s key witness Officer Frank Lee, passed away. After a great deal of consideration, I decided to accept the guilty plea of the defendant to second degree murder and criminal attempt second degree murder," said district attorney Amy Weirich in a statement yesterday.
"I know it's been a long 15 years for both sides and there is no good resolution to a first degree murder case," Judge Lee Coffee said after accepting McKinney's guilty plea. "This is probably the only resolution at this time because I'm of the opinion that this case could probably be tried 800 times and I don't know that it would ever get a unanimous verdict given the state of the witnesses. It's not a resolution that probably either side is happy with, but under the circumstances I think it's probably the only resolution."
The family of Donald Williams was prepared for a fourth trial, and was, as Coffee suggested, "disappointed at the outcome."
"While we understand the situation and the D.A.'s decision, our family resolved early on to stay the course; to prosecute Mr. McKinney to the fullest extent of the law," read a statement issued by the family after yesterday's proceedings.
Still, the pervasive feeling in the courtroom yesterday was that of exhausted relief, if not on both sides, certainly on the part of McKinney, his family, and his team of defenders, including the team from New York law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell who helped him appeal and overturn the original conviction.
"I don't think a jury is ever going to be able to decide the fate of Mr. McKinney," said Skahan after the court hearing yesterday. "The options are to continue to try this case and spend a lot of taxpayer money or to work out a settlement. As Judge Coffee said, it's a settlement that probably both sides aren't happy with but in the end, the state got a conviction and Mr. McKinney got his freedom."