Nashville - Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Wednesday said he has exonerated a man whose convictions for rape and burglary were set aside by a court in 2009 and who was released after more than three decades in prison.
The exoneration makes 61-year-old Lawrence McKinney eligible for compensation of up to $1 million. The only other repayment for his time behind bars was $75 he received when he left prison, his lawyer said.
In a news release, Haslam said that he respects determinations by the court and prosecutor that 61-year-old Lawrence McKinney was not guilty of crimes he was convicted for in 1978 and wouldn't have been prosecuted if DNA testing results were available during his trial.
Last year, a Tennessee parole board voted against recommending McKinney for exoneration, saying the absence of his DNA following a rape was not conclusive evidence of innocence.
The board had also turned down McKinney's request for exoneration in 2010, and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen followed the recommendation, an attorney for McKinney, David Raybin, has said.
"In the eyes of the judicial system, Mr. McKinney is innocent," Haslam said. "While I appreciate the hard work and recommendations of the Board of Parole, in this case I defer to the finding of the court charged with determining Mr. McKinney's guilt or innocence."
McKinney had been sentenced to 100 years on the rape conviction and 10 to 15 years on the burglary conviction. He has said there was a time in prison when he was angry, but that he found peace when he embraced religion behind bars.
At a news conference Wednesday, the soft-spoken African-American man said he never doubted the outcome, because "God put the right people in my way to help me through this," including his wife, the governor, his lawyers, his church and others.
Still, he noted that he "missed out on a whole lot" during 31 years locked up. He got his first driver's license at 58 years old. He married a year after he got out of prison.
"Some people got family, kids, home, everything. I lost all of that," he said. "They took it away. And then I didn't get to see my mom grow old."
Raybin said the entire case against McKinney when he was on trial was based on eyewitness identification.
Raybin said he believes the state Board of Claims will approve the maximum compensation for his client within six months. He said other states have higher compensation caps, and Tennessee should consider changing the law to offer more.
"We're pleased that the governor made an independent decision based on the right thing to do, based on the court order in Memphis," Raybin said. "I mean, how can you go against DNA?"