Timothy McKinney was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 1999. McKinney, an African-American, is accused of killing Donald Williams, an off-duty Memphis police officer after an altercation with Williams earlier in the evening on Christmas night at Crumpy’s Comedy Club in Memphis. The circumstances leading to McKinney’s conviction include: no forensic evidence, inconsistent eyewitness testimony, and inadequate defense.
On Christmas night, 1997, hundreds of people attended a Christmas party at Crumpy’s Comedy Club. As the party was winding down, Donald Williams, an off-duty Memphis police officer moonlighting as a security guard at the club, was shot point blank in the back of the neck and was fatally wounded by an assailant whose face was obscured. Within hours, Memphis police identified 23-year old Timothy Terrell McKinney as a suspect.
McKinney became a suspect because police believed him to be a man with whom Williams had quarreled in the club’s parking lot a few hours prior to the shooting. After the shooting, as the assailant fled, another off-duty officer providing security, Frank Lee, exchanged gunfire in the alley with the assailant before he got into a car and sped away. Witnesses, including Lee, initially described an assailant dressed completely in black, which did not match McKinney’s outfit that night. Lee later identified the man as Timothy McKinney. The description of the getaway car also changed over time and became an exact match for McKinney only after his driver’s license was matched with the vehicle he owned. By the time of the trial, however, Lee’s description of the assailant’s clothing matched what McKinney was wearing that night. Lee told detectives that he was about three car lengths away from the getaway car and fired two or three more shots after the shooter had gotten into the car. Yet McKinney’s car, which Lee said he was able to identify because of its tail lights, showed no bullet strikes or damage when it was seized by the police.
Lee testified at trial that the only altercation with a party patron was with McKinney, thus, giving him a motive to kill Williams. However, at the post-conviction hearing, the club owner, Crumpy, testified under oath that he personally ejected an intoxicated party guest from the club then saw an encounter between the man he had ejected and Williams. Crumpy witnessed McKinney taken into custody and told police at the arrest that McKinney was not the man he had thrown out of his club that night.
An officer testifying that he saw McKinney arguing with the victim, according to the police dispatch logs, did not in fact arrive at the club until 2:01 a.m., much later than when he claimed to see McKinney. Radio dispatches to police place the shooting at approximately 2:30 a.m. or even earlier. Yet, at trial, the State placed McKinney at his girlfriend Debra Kimble’s house at 2:15 a.m. It is virtually impossible for McKinney to have arrived at Kimble’s house by 2:15 a.m. and then return to Crumpy’s Comedy Club, park his car in the alley, sneak up on and shoot Officer Williams by 2:30. In addition, McKinney’s lawyers never used a statement made by Kimble to a defense investigator that she argued with him for 20 minutes. That would have meant that McKinney was at her house at the time of the shooting.
McKinney’s clothing worn that night were seized and logged into evidence, but the State did no scientific testing on the sweater that Lee said McKinney was wearing the night of the shooting. His pants and vest were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) for analysis, but the scientist could not testify conclusively to the presence of gunshot residue. Though eyewitness reports and the testimony of the medical examiner would suggest that the murder weapon was a .38 caliber revolver, no gun was ever found, and there wasn’t enough left of the bullet that struck Williams to determine conclusively the type or caliber of the weapon. No blow-back of blood spray, typical of close gunshot wounds, was found on any of McKinney’s clothing.The State testified that no forensic testing was ever done on McKinney’s car nor on the skid marks at the crime scene. Incredibly, McKinney’s car was sold at a police auction on March 3, 1998, just two months after the shooting and McKinney’s arrest.
McKinney’s court-appointed attorney presented no evidence during the guilt phase of the trial. His attorneys did not call any witnesses who could have rebutted the prosecution. His lead attorney said that if McKinney was innocent, he didn’t have anything to worry about and that the prosecution couldn’t prove its case. His defense attorneys did not do an independent investigation of the facts nor did they interview any of the people who could testify to McKinney’s alibi and version of the events. His attorneys were reluctant to ask for the records or subpoena police reports and dispatch logs that would have enabled the defense to create an accurate timeline of the events that night. And, in an inexplicable legal move, his attorneys actually agreed in writing not to pursue discovery of those items or of the witness statements that could have contradicted the official account at trial.
After his conviction and death sentence, McKinney was appointed the Post-Conviction Defender (PCD) to represent him. The PCD discovered numerous documents which were never turned over to the defense prior to his 1999 trial, including police dispatch and 911 logs that establish a much shorter timeline for McKinney to commit the crime; statements from other witnesses describing a shooter not matching McKinney or his car; and the revelation that the lay eyewitness who testified at trial did not identify McKinney in the first photo lineup she was shown.
A post-conviction hearing was held in early 2006 with forty-two witnesses testifying. McKinney’s lawyers argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at both his trial and direct appeal, and that there had been numerous violations of both the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions. Despite these efforts, on August 31, 2006, McKinney was denied relief by the post-conviction trial judge. A brief in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals was filed in 2007 by the New York Firm Davis Polk appealing the denial of post-conviction relief.
Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in Timothy McKinney’s favor concluding that the defendant was “deprived of effective assistance of counsel at both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Accordingly, the judgment of the post-conviction court is reversed and the matter is remanded for a new trial.”
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