TAMPA — Dean McKee was 16 when he was condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Three decades later, he walked out of the Hillsborough County jail on Tuesday night, allowed to finally go home while the appellate courts decide whether he can stay there.
McKee, 46, was released hours after a Hillsborough circuit judge agreed to released him on his own recognizance as the state appeals a judicial order striking down his 1988 murder conviction.
Jailers escorted McKee to a holding area to be fitted with a GPS monitor — a condition of his appellate bond agreement — a little after 8:30 p.m.
Outside, family members, friends, photographers and reporters peered through the lobby windows of the Orient Road Jail.
Some caught a glimpse of McKee, still standing in his orange jail pants, bear-hugging his lawyer, Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida.
"The great thing about this case is it’s all about redemption," Miller said a few minutes later. "No one is incorrigible. Everyone grows up. Everyone has an opportunity to become a good man. And this is a good man."
McKee’s attorneys argue that new evidence casts doubt on his guilt, and suggest that his older brother may have played had a greater role in the 1987 murder than was originally believed.
Both brothers were teenage neo-Nazi skinheads implicated in the beating and stabbing of Isaiah Walker, a 41-year-old homeless black man found mortally wounded Dec. 20, 1987 outside the downtown Tampa Museum of Art.
At 8:50 p.m. Tuesday, McKee emerged wearing a crisp white dress shirt and denim jeans. He fell into the arms of his mother, Kathy McKee, and his fiancé, Danie Cutler. Their embrace, before a fluttering cameras, lasted a full 30 seconds.
McKee stood, looked around, and found more people to hug. There were aunts, uncles, friends from years ago. He shook hands with James Bain, a man who was exonerated in a rape case after more than 35 years. Bain, like the others, had come to greet McKee.
Standing beside his attorney, McKee spoke briefly, his voice close to tears.
"It’s been a long road," he said. "Some wonderful people kept me strong, kept me focused. You open your heart and some amazing things can happen."
In October, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell overturned McKee’s conviction in the 1987 murder of a homeless man. New DNA evidence and witness testimony cast enough doubt on his guilt that McKee would likely be acquitted in a new trial, the judge concluded.
The state is appealing that decision. If they succeed, McKee could go back to prison. Otherwise, they will have to decide whether to put McKee on trial again.
In the meantime, McKee is a free man. The conditions of his release say that he cannot break the law, he cannot drink alcohol or use drugs, he cannot be in possession of any weapons. He even has a job lined up with a sewer contractor. He will stay at Cutler’s home in Largo.
He entered the passenger side of a white Kia sport-utility vehicle and was driven away.
McKee had to get home soon. He now has a 10 p.m. curfew.