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After 3 Trials, Memphis Prisoner Timothy McKinney Wins Freedom by Pleading Guilty to Crime He Denies

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In order to win his newfound freedom, Memphis death row prisoner Timothy McKinney had to plead guilty to a murder he maintains he did not commit. McKinney was initially convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of police officer Don Williams in December 1997. McKinney appealed and won a new trial, which ended with a deadlocked jury. A third trial earlier this year also ended in a hung jury. As part of a plea deal that could set him free as early as today, McKinney pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Since McKinney has spent almost 16 years in prison, including 11 on death row, he is immediately eligible for release on time served. We’re joined by The Nation magazine’s Liliana Segura, who has extensively covered McKinney’s case.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Memphis, where a man on death row is set to walk free as early as today. In order to win his freedom, he had to plead guilty to a murder he maintained he did not commit. Timothy McKinney was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1999 for the fatal shooting of Officer Don Williams outside a comedy club in December 1997. McKinney appealed and won a new trial, which ended with a deadlocked jury. A third trial earlier this year also ended in a hung jury. As part of a plea deal, McKinney pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of the officer.

Since McKinney has spent almost 16 years in prison, including 11 on death row, he was immediately eligible for release on time served. His family expressed relief at his imminent release. This is his brother, Travis McKinney.

TRAVIS McKINNEY: Glad it’s over with. He’s a free man. He’s coming home. Just glad he’s over this.

REPORTER: Fifteen years long.

TRAVIS McKINNEY: Fifteen years, long time.

AMY GOODMAN: The family of police officer Don Williams did not agree to the plea. They said in a statement, quote, “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. Though Mr. McKinney pled guilty to second degree murder, we are disappointed at this outcome,” they said.

Meanwhile, prosecutor Tom Henderson of the district attorney’s office said the deal was the most favorable one possible.

TOM HENDERSON: In looking at the ramifications of either a not guilty or a dismissal based on the lack of being able to achieve a verdict, we think this is the best result for all of our clients.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by a reporter who’s been following the case closely. Liliana Segura is associate editor at The Nation magazine. Her most recent piece on McKinney for The Nation is called “Death in Memphis.” Liliana Segura was in Memphis for the last trial.

It’s great to have you with us, Liliana. So, lay out this story and these remarkable latest developments.

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, the story obviously goes back to 1997, and the details of the case are so convoluted and complex that I would encourage people to read the case for more background sort of on the facts themselves. But from the start, this was a case that was full of holes, you know, absolutely no physical evidence really linking Mr. McKinney to the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened, what is believed to have happened that night.

LILIANA SEGURA: Sure, OK. So, to give the sort of short version, on Christmas night, 1997, there was a party at this comedy club called Crumpy’s. It was very well attended; hundreds of people were there. It went late into the night. At around 2:30 in the morning that night, Officer Don Williams, who had been working off-duty, sort of moonlighting off the books at this comedy club, was shot at point-blank range in the neck. And he didn’t die immediately. He was paralyzed and actually spent weeks in the hospital. And sort of during those weeks, you know, obviously the community became very outraged about this crime. There was—any time a police officer is shot and killed, there’s sort of a race to—a sort of very quick manhunt.

And all eyes sort of focused on Mr. McKinney immediately. And that was because he had been seen having an altercation with Don Williams earlier that night. He was outside. He couldn’t find his car. He was convinced that it had been stolen. And so he sort of made, according to Mr. Williams’s—Officer Williams’s partner, made sort of vague threatening statements that he was going to come back and do something to the club. So, eventually, his presence became sort of obnoxious enough that they took down his—they briefly detained him, took down his information on a sheet of paper. That sheet of paper was put in Don Williams’s pocket. And later on at the hospital, that same sheet of paper was retrieved from his pocket. So it became this kind of golden ticket almost, you know, to solving this crime. And so, officers focused on McKinney at the expense of any other suspects, really. And there were numerous suspects who had also been seen that night having an argument, being tossed out of the club for being disruptive. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the owner of the joint?

LILIANA SEGURA: Yeah, so the owner—when I went to Memphis to report this story, I met Donald Crump, who owned the comedy club and who also owns a series of hot wings chains. And he is a very interesting sort of player here, because he was one of the people who had thrown out a person from the club that night. And sort of in the ensuing chaos of that, of the crime, he was told that the man he had thrown out that night was the man who had shot Don Williams. And so, he was following—he was very invested in the case and the outcome, because he was following it very closely. Don Williams had been a very close friend of his.

And in his recollection, he was working at one of his hot wings restaurants the day that Mr. McKinney was arrested. It was only a couple days after the crime. And he decided to leave his restaurant and go sort of see the scene. There was a SWAT team around there. You know, it was quite a public atmosphere. The press was there. And so, he was watching from the street when they brought out Mr. McKinney. And he turned and he looked at him, and he didn’t recognize him. He said, “That’s not the guy I threw out.” And so he turned to a police officer and said, “That’s not the guy that I threw out of the club.”

AMY GOODMAN: Because the officer wanted to arrest him, right? And he said, “Please, don’t,” so he was feeling very guilty.

LILIANA SEGURA: Absolutely, yeah. So he, earlier, the night—the man that he did throw out, you know, there was talk of arresting him that night. And Donald Crump stepped in and said, you know, “You know it’s Christmas. Don’t do it. Just let him go home.” And so, he believes that, you know—he blames himself, largely, for what happened.

I want to be very clear, though: It’s not entirely clear that the man that Crump threw out was the man who shot Don Williams. That is—there are a number of sort of episodes like that that night. But what’s interesting, the significance of his—of what he said is that the police never followed up. He cast out, from the moment Mr. McKinney was arrested, on his guilt and suggested strongly that it could be somebody else, but they never did anything with that information. They didn’t follow up.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, I want to turn to a clip from Timothy McKinney’s retrial last month, where you were present, Liliana. This is prosecuting attorney Tom Henderson making his closing argument.

TOM HENDERSON: At 3:00 in the morning, he doesn’t know somebody’s looking for him, except one way: because he’s the one who killed him! That’s why he’s hiding at 3:00 in the morning. That’s why he’s backing his car into the grass. That’s why he’s taking the license plate off. Because he knows he killed that man! Shot him in the back!

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Liliana Segura, can you comment on what Tom Henderson said and his role as prosecuting attorney in this case?

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, Tom Henderson became, over the course of reporting this story, a major—a major player in the story, because what I didn’t know when I started looking into the McKinney case was that, in addition to sort of all of the—there was a lot of prosecutorial misconduct at the original trial. The original prosecutor was a man named Jerry Harris, and he withheld, egregiously, exculpatory evidence, evidence that would have cast serious doubt on Mr. McKinney’s guilt—police logs, eyewitness statements, a whole lot of things that would have been crucial for Mr. McKinney’s defense. And so, Jerry Harris, the original prosecutor, hid that stuff, and actually did so with the complicity of Timothy McKinney’s own defense attorneys.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is that what’s called a Brady violation? What you—

LILIANA SEGURA: Yeah, a Brady violation, exactly, which is very common in cases all over the country. What’s significant about that is that Tom Henderson, who’s a veteran prosecutor out of the same office, was a contemporary of Jerry Harris, and there’s absolutely a culture of sort of corruption and of those kinds of violations that’s very old in Shelby County and that has gone uncorrected, and they get away with it. So, Tom Henderson has a pending bar complaint against him right now out of Nashville documenting numerous capital cases in which he has not only withheld exculpatory evidence, but denied that that evidence even existed—you know, just shamelessly lied.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What is it about Shelby County, though? Because also, I think you mention it, as well, that three death row inmates have been released in the last three years.

LILIANA SEGURA: Yeah, in the last three years, that’s right. Last fall, a man named Michael Rimmer was released from death row—another Tom Henderson case, actually. And his release had everything to do with the fact that Tom Henderson had told these untruths. And that case, that story, was broken wide open by a USA Today reporter named Brad Heath.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what are the implications of that? I mean, does Tom Henderson not have to, in any sense, be—I don’t know—reprimanded for that kind of—

LILIANA SEGURA: In theory, Tom Henderson has no business, in my opinion, in trying any kind of cases, let alone a capital case. And it was actually quite surreal being in the courtroom, day after day in April, watching him just practice as if he has—you know, nobody sort of in the room—the jury doesn’t know that this is a man who would happily withhold exculpatory evidence that could save a man’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Timothy McKinney’s own attorney. His attorney is named Gerald—


AMY GOODMAN: Skahan. And he said, after three trials, it was clear proving the case against his client was hard.

GERALD SKAHAN: I think we’ve gotten to a point in the trial where, factually, I don’t think a jury is ever going to be able to decide the fate of Mr. McKinney. And the options are to continue to try this case and spend a lot of taxpayer money or to work out a settlement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you take that to what has happened now in the last few days, Liliana?

LILIANA SEGURA: So, what’s happened now is actually extraordinary, because after the third trial, I mean, automatically, it was a foregone conclusion—the judge said so, the press said so, even the defense attorneys I spoke to said, “Well, I guess we’re going to see a fourth trial.” And in the weeks that have passed since, something changed. And it’s not entirely clear to me. I think when the jury split came down—it was eight to four in favor of the defense—I think the DA’s office realized that they’re not going to win this case. But this is a DA’s office that doesn’t make deals; they don’t make reasonable offers. And so, it’s quite extraordinary, almost historic, that they were willing to give him time served in exchange for this guilty plea. I don’t consider—

AMY GOODMAN: So, McKinney has pled guilty to the murder of the police officer?

LILIANA SEGURA: To a second-degree murder, to a lesser charge. And because he’s been imprisoned for 16 years, he got off on—he’s out on time served. You know, it’s not—he never wanted to plead guilty to a crime he insisted he did not commit. You know, that guilty plea, that felony, is going to follow him, as it does for legions of former felons in every attempt to try to find housing, to try to get a job. You know, he has lost his rights as a citizen. So that’s very significant. But it was the price he had to pay for his freedom. And I really—I believe, and I think the players believe, everyone involved, that there wouldn’t have been any other way to do it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could he have made an Alford plea? There was some discussion [inaudible].

LILIANA SEGURA: He wasn’t eligible, for sort of technical reasons. I believe if he had the—the best he would have gotten, I believe, would have been a life sentence, that would—in Memphis is 51 years, is a life sentence, with parole. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And an Alford plea is?

LILIANA SEGURA: An Alford plea is where you can—you maintain your innocence but acknowledge that there was sufficient evidence against you that would have led to a conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Liliana, you have spent a great deal of time on this case in Memphis; what is most important to you about it?

LILIANA SEGURA: About this particular case? I think what’s most important to know about it is that it’s not unique. All of the pitfalls you see and the corruption that you see in this case are absolutely at play in tons of cases all over the place, and not just death penalty cases.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Liliana, you’ve been in touch with Timothy McKinney. Do you know what his plans are once he’s released?

LILIANA SEGURA: He’s talking about the future he’s got. He’s talking about leaving Memphis. I think there’s a very good chance he’s going to try to get out of there. He’s talking about trying to find a job. I don’t know exactly what his concrete plans are, and I hesitate to sort of share what he’s told me. But he’s got a very good support network both in Memphis and in other states, so we’ll see.

AMY GOODMAN: Liliana Segura, associate editor at The Nation magazine, she’s been following the McKinney case closely since he’s been on death row. Her most recent piece on McKinney for The Nation is called “Death in Memphis,” and we’ll link to it at

When we come back, we go to Colorado to hear about the number of soldiers who are coming home and being discharged, losing all of their healthcare. We’ll talk about what this means. Stay with us.

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