Tampa judge frees Dean Mckee, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1987

McKee took the fall for a Tampa hate crime he didn’t commit in 1987.

“It’s over and he’s a free man,” Seth Miller said.

You can hear the joy in Miller’s voice — he’s a lawyer with the Innocence Project of Florida — when he talks about his former client, Dean McKee.

Former as of this morning.

It’s been a long road for McKee, who falsely confessed to the 1987 racially motivated murder of a black man, Isaiah Walker. The judge sentenced the 16-year-old boy to life in prison for murder. Read our full story about what happened next here, but bottom line: McKee kept protesting his innocence and, when DNA evidence suggested he was right, the Innocence Project of Florida took the case in 2011.

For eight years, Miller, his staff and McKee worked to get the conviction overturned. In October 2017, two years after a hearing, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell issued a 17-page order overturning the 1988 murder conviction. DNA showed McKee never touched the victim.

The State of Florida filed an intent to appeal Campbell’s decision.

McKee stayed in jail, this time in solitary confinement for his own safety, until the court released him on an appeal bond on Jan. 9.

The rules of his temporary release were clear: McKee had to wear an ankle monitor. He couldn’t drink. He couldn’t go on social media. He couldn’t leave Pinellas County, except for work. He had to be in his home by 9 p.m. every night. He had to plug his ankle monitor in nightly or go back to prison.

Since Jan. 9, 2018, McKee’s had some firsts. His fiance threw him his first birthday party in more than 30 years. He “paroled” an Australian Shepherd that follows him everywhere. He started making plans in case he could be free — but not definite plans. He knew that the state’s appeal could find him guilty again, and he knew that even if the state didn’t find him guilty, they could re-try.

All that went away this morning. The State dismissed the appeal on Dec. 28, but had not yet decided whether or not they would re-try McKee’s case.

At a status hearing this morning, the state attorney told the court they would drop the appeal and would not re-try McKee.

And just like that, with no pomp or circumstance or flashbulbs popping in the courtroom, McKee’s nightmare — which began in 1987 at the Tampa Museum of Art — was over.

He turned to Miller, who’s led him through every decision since 2011, and asked, “What do I do now?”

“Whatever you want,” Miller told him.

“He’s a free man,” Miller told Creative Loafing. “It’s over. He’s no longer a convicted felon, no longer charged with first-degree murder or any other crime. He’s a free man in America. This is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’ve been hoping for.”

And, Miller added, “we’re thankful the State Attorney Office finally got to this point.”

McKee, tearing up a bit, thanked the state attorney.

“I know this means a lot to you,” the Honorable Barbara Twine Thomas told McKee, “Good luck.”

The 1987 murder of Isaiah Walker remains unsolved.

This article originally appeared at Creative Loafing.

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.