Dean McKee: Still in jail — but perhaps not for long

On Jan. 9, Judge Nazaretian may grant Dean McKee his appellate bond. Or he may not.

In the front corner, Dean and his attorney, Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida talked quietly, their heads together. Dean gave small waves and smiles to each of his family and his friends as they walked into the courtroom. He blew his fiancée a kiss. 

But let’s back up.

Last month, Dean McKee — whose first-degree murder conviction Judge Campbell overthrew in October of this year — stood before circuit court judge Nick Nazaretian while his lawyer, Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, prepared to argue two motions: either release Dean on bond until his appeal, or re-sentence him (more on that below). Assistant State Attorney Megan Newcomb told Judge Nazaretian that he might lack jurisdiction to rule on either of those two motions, arguing that as the case was on appeal, the judge couldn’t make any rulings.

Dean went back to solitary confinement in Hillsborough County Jail (for his own protection) until today, when he once again stood before the same judge, who took his time questioning Miller on several issues: Was it a moot point to be in the courtroom, given that Dean’s murder conviction had been overturned? Why did the Innocence Project of Florida want him to re-sentence Dean if they believed Dean didn’t kill Isaiah Walker in 1988? Why did Miller feel he had jurisdiction to re-sentence Dean?

Confused? Here’s some background from a Dec. 20 article about Dean, who was convicted of murdering Isaiah walker in 1988. The sentence was overturned in October of this year, but Dean remains in jail. Had Dean not asked the court to examine the DNA evidence, he would likely already be a free man because when Judge Harry “Hanging Harry” Coe III sentenced Dean to life in prison, it was legal to send a minor to prison for life — but it isn’t now. In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court declared such sentences unconstitutional (Graham v. Florida, 2009); anyone who’d been sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile has been re-sentenced. Former Sumter Correctional Institution Correctional Officer Joe Carney worked with Dean for many years and spoke with CL about Dean’s character.
Based on Carney’s assessment of Dean and current sentencing guidelines — and Dean’s accrued time off for good behavior — any prisoner with Dean’s record who’d been sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile in the 1980s would be free by now.
But because Dean’s case was on appeal — because he wanted to clear his name — he has not been re-sentenced. That’s what one of the Nov. 29 motions asked: Re-sentence him now. 

After a relatively short explanation of why the hearing wasn’t a moot point, Miller and Assistant State Attorney Megan Newcomb agreed that Judge Nazaretian did indeed have the right to decide on whether or not Dean could get released on an appellate bond. As to why Miller wanted him to re-sentence Dean if Miller believed in Dean’s innocence?

“We are simply looking to get him home,” Miller said.

Then came the hard part. Judge Nazaretian listened to Miller and then Newcomb explain why they believed/did not believe he had the jurisdiction to re-sentence Dean. Miller presented a slew of case law in support of his point. Newcomb, of course, disagreed, but did call the judge’s right to re-sentence Dean “discretionary.” She also argued that since Judge Campbell had vacated (overturned) the sentence along with the conviction, the sentence no longer existed.

“So we can’t correct something that doesn’t exist?” Judge Nazaretian asked.

Meanwhile, Dean McKee sat in handcuffs and a red jumpsuit in Newcomb’s direct line of sight.

On Jan. 5, the judge will issue a written position on whether or not he has jurisdiction.

On Jan. 9, he will hear the case for Dean’s appellate bond. 

Until then, Dean’s in jail, serving the sentence Necomb told the judge “didn’t exist.”

This article originally appeared at Creative Loafing.