DNA evidence cleared Dean McKee of a crime he went to jail for in 1989. But instead of upholding the judge’s ruling, the state refuses to release him.
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” — The United States Constitution, Amendment VIII
On October 20 of this year, Judge Lisa Campbell overturned Dean McKee’s conviction for the murder of Isaiah Walker. He’s spent the last 10 years trying to prove he didn’t do it.
Nevertheless, the state refuses to release him.
In 1986, Dean was a happy-go-lucky-enough 14-year-old who would skate at my neighbor’s half-pipe. His yearbook picture that year shows a smiling skater with short hair, long bangs and a side part. He wore board shorts and Chucks. We’d hear Dean and his friends hitting the ramp. My mom’s cousin, who lived behind the ramp, hated the noise.
“Oh, Ed,” my mother told him. “If that’s the worst thing they do, what’s a little noise?”
In 1987 Dean followed his brother, Scott, who was two years older, into the neo-Nazi movement. Like Scott, he shaved his head. He tattooed a swastika on his chest. A few days before Christmas of that year, he was riding around Tampa with his older brother and two friends when he asked Scott to pull over because he didn’t like how he was driving (Scott had been drinking). The brothers came across Vietnam vet Isaiah Walker, a black man, sleeping outside the Tampa Museum of Art.
In 1988 Dean went to prison for murdering Isaiah Walker. Scott took a plea bargain for attempted first degree murder, received a five-year sentence, and was out in one. Court records show that, of the four who testified against Dean in 1988, one — Eric Tulppo — recanted on the stand and told the court he gave his testimony “under threat of prosecution.” The court records also show Dean’s stepfather, when cross-examined, testified that Assistant State Attorney Mike Benito told him he would “get in trouble” if he didn’t testify in a manner consistent with his original statement to the police.
Creative Loafing asked Benito, who currently works for Tampa’s Darrigo, Diaz and Jimenez, practicing personal injury and criminal defense law, if he or any member of his prosecution team coerced any of the witnesses.
“No,” He said. “The prosecution team did not coerce anybody.”
Dean’s brother, Scott, testified against his little brother.
Judge “Hangin’” Harry Lee Coe III sentenced Dean to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
In 2000, the fourth witness who testified against Dean in 1988, Bobby Hoos, signed a sworn affidavit recanting his entire testimony, claiming coercion.
“Hoos admitted that the assistant state attorney forced him to testify untruthfully against Dean through threats of incarceration and Hoos was in fact present on the balcony during the killing, that Dean never touched the victim, and that it was Dean that actually pulled Scott off the victim,” an April 12, 2013 motion states.
In 2007, Dean wrote — longhand — an eight-page petition, asking for DNA testing on evidence from his case. A Hillsborough judge ordered testing.
In 2009, two years after a judge ordered DNA testing on Isaiah Walker’s fingernail clippings, the evidence came back. But, since the judge had failed to order anyone to actually get a sample of Dean’s DNA, it didn’t help Dean, who would spend the next 18 months writing letters in a futile attempt to get someone — anyone — to see and correct the mistake.
In 2011, the Innocence Project of Florida took on Dean’s case and convinced a judge to take another look. That judge ordered DNA testing on Dean, and, by the year’s end, that evidence created reasonable doubt about whether Dean killed Walker. On April 15, the FDLE issued a report comparing Dean’s DNA to that of DNA found under Isaiah Walker’s fingernails and on a fishing sinker near his body. FDLE analyst Melissa Dammer analyzed the DNA evidence found under Isaiah Walker’s fingernails; she, along with witness for the defense, Dr. Julie Heinig, agreed that Isaiah Walker’s fingernails also had someone else’s DNA under them — and that someone wasn’t Dean. Heinig testified that “a violent struggle between a perpetrator and a victim, such as strangulation, suffocation, stabbing … would be the optimal situation” for foreign DNA to be under the victim’s fingernails.
In 2013, after two years of re-investigating the case, the Innocence Project of Florida’s Seth Miller filed a motion to have Dean’s conviction overturned.
In 2015, the court heard expert testimony that the DNA evidence strongly suggested someone else had killed Isaiah Walker, not Dean. Scott’s ex-girlfriend Michelle Cunningham testified that Scott told her not only that he, not his little brother, had killed Isaiah Walker, but that he and his stepfather had “worked something out” and that “everything would be taken care of.” She said Scott told her he and his stepfather had agreed “Dean would take the fall for the crime because he was younger and would not get in as much trouble.” Additionally, Cunningham testified, Scott told her Dean had pulled him off Isaiah Walker in an attempt to stop the murder.
The court also heard testimony from another of Scott’s ex-girlfriends, Donna Morris, who testified that Scott told her several times that he, not Dean, had killed Isaiah Walker, but the prosecutor had coerced him into testifying, lest he face a death sentence. She told the court he’d spoken about recanting his testimony that put his brother in prison, but ultimately decided against it because “he had a family to think about.”
When questioned in 2015, Scott McKee did not affirm his version of events the night Isaiah Walker was murdered. Rather, he invoked the Fifth Amendment.
In May 2017, Dean’s parole was denied, despite an exemplary prison record and a recommendation that he be paroled. The parole board — which consists of three people, two of whom constitute a quorum — denied his parole. The board did not consider any new evidence and stated that the severity of the crime informed its decision. (Full disclosure: This reporter sent a letter in support of Dean’s release.)
On October 20, 2017 — more than two years after the hearing — Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell issued a 17-page order overturning the 1988 conviction.
On November 16, 2017, the state filed an appeal, days before its window to do so expired.
On November 29, the state attorney’s office threw down another roadblock. The Innocence Project of Florida had filed two motions: Either release Dean on bond until his appeal, or re-sentence him (more on that below). Assistant State Attorney Megan Newcomb told circuit court judge Nick Nazaretian that he may 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.
Instead of releasing Dean until his appeal came before the court — for which a date has not yet been set — Nazaretian sent Dean back to jail, where he’s in solitary confinement, to the shock of the friends and family gathered that day in court: Dean’s mother; his uncle; a former prison guard; Dean’s fiancée; and more than one former inmate who spent time serving alongside Dean.
Had Dean not asked the court to examine the DNA evidence, he would already be a free man. When Judge Coe III sentenced Dean to life in prison, it was legal to send a minor to prison for life. 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 November 29 motions asked: Re-sentence him now.
If the state wins its appeal, Dean will likely go free. But walking out of prison with a first-degree murder charge — as compared to having that charge removed and having an acknowledgment of innocence — would lead to two very different futures for the accused. There’s little doubt that Dean will have an easier time finding a job and building a life if his wins his appeal. But either way, he will be free.
Freedom — and his name cleared — is all he wants.
He wants to sit outside. He wants to drink milk from the carton. He wants to go to a Publix.
Dean has renounced his skinhead views — shortly before Isaiah Walker’s murder he told a reporter he had allied himself with the neo-Nazis for the brotherhood aspect of the group — and black former inmates who’ve spoken to us and who attended Dean’s hearing on Nov. 29 tell CL Dean isn’t a racist.
“If he is, he’s the worst racist I’ve ever seen,” Larry Daniel, who served with Dean at Everglades Correctional Institution, said after a parole hearing in Gulfport several years ago.
Dean earned his GED in prison and paints murals on prison walls.
In the 30 years since his conviction, court records show Dean’s brother has been designated a sex offender and has been arrested for failing to register as such.
Benito still believes Dean killed Isaiah Walker. He told Creative Loafing the DNA evidence hasn’t changed his mind, nor has new testimony from Scott’s ex-girlfriends or Hoos’s recanted testimony.
“We don’t have to prove innocence,” Miller argued in a 2015 written closing argument asking the court to overturn Dean’s conviction. “Our burden is much lower. We just have to prove, by a preponderance, that there is reasonable doubt.”
“I prosecuted Dean McKee,” Benito told us, “and the evidence against him was strong.”
“When we do the proper analysis of evidence that appeared strong for the state at trial it loses much of its strength,” Miller argued in that 2015 closing argument. “The central pillar of the State’s case — that Dean stabbed the victim — is now in serious doubt.”
On December 28, at 1:30 p.m. at 401 Jefferson St., Courtroom 33 in Tampa, the Innocence Project of Florida will once again face the state attorney and fight for Dean’s freedom — and his innocence. They’ve filed a memorandum of law sentencing, asserting the court “does in fact have jurisdiction to address either or both” of the motions.
Anyone may attend the hearing.
The Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office was not able respond to our question by deadline. We will update this story with any responses. Update, 2019: They never responded.
You can donate to the Innocence Project — who asked that we not press them to comment on a pending case — at floridainnocence.org.
This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing.