McKinney pleads guilty to second-degree murder in death of Memphis police officer

By Lawrence Buser
Posted May 21, 2013 at 11:43 a.m., updated May 21, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.

After three trials and more than 15 years in prison, including 11 on death row, Timothy McKinney will be released from custody this week after pleading guilty to killing a Memphis police officer in 1997.

McKinney, 38, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and a negotiated sentence of 15 years in prison that he has already served for the shooting death of officer Don Williams.

“It’s been a long 15 years for both sides, and under the circumstances this is probably the best resolution,” said Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee, who approved the settlement. “This case could be tried 800 times and never get a unanimous verdict.”

McKinney was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999, but a state appeals court awarded him a new trial in 2010 while ruling his original attorneys did not properly investigate or try the case. A retrial last year ended with a jury deadlocked at 11-1 for guilty, and a second retrial in April again ended with a hung jury, this time voting 8-4 for acquittal.

“In the end, the state got a conviction and Mr. McKinney got his freedom,” said Gerald Skahan, chief capital-case attorney for the Public Defenders Office. “What happened to Officer Williams was terrible, but the system works on what can be proven in court and on what cannot be proven. It’s time for this to be over.”

McKinney made no statement in court.

Williams’ family opposed the settlement.

“While we understand the situation and the (Shelby County District Attorney General’s) decision, our family resolved early on to stay the course, to prosecute Mr. McKinney to the fullest extent of the law,” they said in a prepared statement signed “The Family of Donald Williams.” “Though Mr. McKinney pled guilty to second-degree murder, we are disappointed at the outcome.”

State prosecutor Tom Henderson said he understood the family’s displeasure, but that other factors were involved in the decision to settle the case.

He noted that the state’s key witness, officer Frank Lee, died in November, leaving the state to present his testimony by previous recording. Lee identified McKinney as the killer and exchanged gunfire with the suspect who escaped that night.

McKinney also pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder for that exchange and was sentenced to eight years, a sentence that was concurrent with the 15-year term.

“This was a very bitter crime and devastating crime to the family and to the community,” said Henderson. “The fact that it’s 16 years later and our key eyewitness has passed away, we think this disposition is in the best interest of the community, although it does not bring the family the kind of closure it deserves. The family says they’re ready to go to trial from now until the end of time.”

Williams, 37, was shot to death around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, 1997, while working private security at Crumpy’s Comedy Club on North Hollywood and James Road in Frayser.

Fellow officer Lee, who also was working security that night, testified in the trials that McKinney had given security trouble all night and that he, Lee, was standing next to Williams when a man he identified as McKinney shot his friend in the back of the head.

McKinney’s name, address and date of birth were written on a scrap of paper found in Williams’ coat pocket when he was in the emergency room.

Defense attorneys Skahan and Marty McAfee said McKinney already had left the premises when Williams was shot and that testimony by prosecution witnesses has changed over the years.

They also argued that evidence in the case was mishandled and that police failed to investigate several other possible suspects at the club that night.

McKinney is the third Shelby County death row inmate to be released from prison in the past three years.

Last June Erskine Johnson was released for time served after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the 1983 shooting death of Memphis grocer Joe Belenchia. Johnson was on death row from 1985 to 2004, but was resentenced to life when an appellate court ruled the prosecution did not give the defense a police document. Newly discovered evidence later prompted another appeals court to grant a new trial.

In 2011, Gaile Owens was released on parole a year after then-Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted her death sentence to life, saying there was a possibility she was an abused spouse. Owens was convicted in the 1985 contract killing of her husband, Ronald Owens.

Her co-defendant, Sidney Porterfield, now 70, remains on death row.
© 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved.


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