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Felkins: Guilty until proven innocent

dfox • Updated Dec 5, 2015 at 12:07 AM

“Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Mental note: If I ever find myself in Israel thinking of committing a crime, it’s not a good idea. 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t even imagine a system like that. That is, until I think about Lawrence McKinney. 

McKinney currently seeks exoneration for rape and burglary when he was convicted in Memphis in 1978 at age 18. 

He spent 31 years, nine months, 18 days and 12 hours of a 100-year sentence in Riverbend Maximum Security Prison before his release in July 2009. After the Innocence Project became involved in his case, DNA evidence ultimately led to a judge overturning McKinney’s conviction. 

Then came the struggle to clear his record, and that was resolved in January 2014 when a Shelby County judge expunged McKinney’s record, which now allows him to have a passport and travel outside the U.S. to do much-anticipated mission work in Kenya. 

McKinney moved to Lebanon after his release from prison. He married his wife, Dorothy in January 2010. They met as pen pals in June 2005, and she has stood by his side ever since. 

He’s extremely involved at Immanuel Baptist Church and attends as many as seven Bible studies a week. He also ministers to inmates at the Wilson County Jail and works with youth at Lebanon Church of God. McKinney worked for Lifeway in Nashville for three years before he landed a job at Wilson County Hyundai in September.

I first met McKinney nearly two years ago when I wrote a story about his case and the need to get his record expunged. I watched him from afar even before that as he sat across the church we both attend each Sunday morning. He may just be the most faithful person I know. 

A few weeks ago, our Sunday school class did a series of lessons on the beatitudes. You know, Jesus’ sermon where He talks about “blessed are the…” One of the things I took from the lessons was that the beatitudes are attained like climbing rungs on a ladder. 

If McKinney isn’t at the top of the ladder, he must be awfully close. 

But there’s still one arduous legal step in McKinney’s ultimate path to innocence, and that’s exoneration. The process appears simple, but as history reflects, isn’t in McKinney’s case. 

He applied for exoneration after his release. The Tennessee Board of Parole, formerly known as the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, held a hearing for McKinney in 2010 and did not recommend exoneration. The governor ultimately decides on an exoneration request, and McKinney’s case was never acted on by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.

McKinney can apply again for exoneration under a new governor, and that application will likely be delivered to the Board of Parole, as well as Gov. Bill Haslam, next week, according to Rep. Mark Pody.

If granted exoneration, McKinney can file a claim for compensation, which cannot exceed $1 million, with the state’s Board of Claims. In McKinney’s case, that claim would be decided in a hearing separate from McKinney’s exoneration hearing before the Board of Parole. 

If anyone deserves that full amount, it’s McKinney. 

“We’re fighting for that. It’s not him. He’s never once said to me, ‘man I hope I get that money’ – not once, which makes me fight harder for him,” Immanuel Pastor John Hunn said.

Even if the parole board decides to recommend to the governor McKinney should be exonerated, the decision is in Haslam’s hands. 

According to state law, the final determination of whether an exoneration be granted lies in the discretion of the governor after a review of the petition and the non-binding recommendation of the board. 

Working against McKinney is the fact that exonerations, at least among recent governors, are rare. Haslam hasn’t granted clemency to anyone in his six years as governor, and Bredesen did all of his during his last days in office in 2011. 

I thought more could be done, and that’s when I came across a letter to the editor written in December 2013 by Floyd Shannon and Carolyn J. Moser. In it, they suggest a petition be started on McKinney’s behalf and sent to Haslam. So I did just that. Here’s the link: http://ow.ly/VsVIG. 

Hopefully you’ll find it in your heart to sign the petition. Let’s send a message to Haslam about this man and how important he is to our community. 

Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s editor. Email him at jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com and follow him on Twitter @paperboyfelkins. 

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