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Did Hillsborough prosecutors send an innocent teenager to prison for life?

TAMPA — Two middle-age men sat in a Hillsborough County courtroom last October, studiously avoiding each others' eyes.

Outwardly, they had little in common — one entered in handcuffs, the other through the front door — but both knew it could easily have been the other way around.

Dean McKee, 43, had waited years for the chance to put the man who helped send him to prison for life back on the witness stand. And there he was: thick-set, gray-bearded, with a tear-drop tattoo leaching from one eye. It was one of the most hopeful hours in McKee's 27 years of incarceration.

Turning to the witness, McKee's attorney asked a standard question: "What's your relationship to the defendant?"

"He's my brother," the man replied.

• • •

In March of 1988, when Tampa police arrested Dean and his older brother Scott McKee for murder, the pair were proud members of a small but aggressive gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. It was a makeshift fraternity — or so they thought of themselves — allied against blacks, gays and Jews.

"I became one because of the brotherhood involved," Dean told a reporter less than a year before his arrest. "We all stick together for security. You've got to get love somewhere."

The brotherhood did not last.

Dean has spent most of his life behind bars for a racially motivated murder he says he did not commit. And while precisely who did remains unknown, lawyers for the Innocence Project of Florida succeeded recently in reopening his case after conducting a thorough reexamination of the evidence.

What they found has caused them to raise troubling questions about the steps a Tampa prosecutor took to win. At least as unsettling is that if Dean is innocent, he was betrayed by the person he loved more than anyone.

At around 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1987, a security guard at the Tampa Museum of Art heard loud thumping sounds and called the police, summoning rookie cop Jane Castor. She would later become Tampa's first female police chief, but was then assigned to the midnight patrol shift downtown.

The beam of Castor's flashlight found Isaiah Walker, a 41-year-old black man lying on his side on the museum's second-floor balcony, where homeless men were known to sleep. As Castor took stock of the bloodstain on the breast of his corduroy jacket and the gashes on his head, his eyes flickered and he made a gurgling sound. She pumped his chest, but Walker's pulse was gone. He had been stabbed once in the heart, and by the time paramedics arrived, he was dead. At his feet was a bloody four-inch fishing sinker attached to a short piece of line.

The next day's St. Petersburg Times carried a brief mention of Walker's murder. "This is what we call a whodunit," a police sergeant told the newspaper. "We have no motive and no suspects."

Although police described Walker as a transient, his family maintained he wasn't so much homeless as he was anti-house. A Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Walker returned home after he was discharged, finding an apartment and a job in construction. But the war had changed him; as he grew older, he stopped taking care of his himself and insisted on sleeping outdoors, choosing a shelter of broken crates under the Crosstown Expressway or, on the night of his death, the museum balcony.

The investigation of Walker's death quickly stalled. An early suspect — a homeless man found near the crime scene with dried blood on his clothes — was rejected for lack of evidence or motive.

KATHLEEN CABBLE | TimesIn 1987, St. Petersburg Times photographer Kathleen Cabble visited the McKee home to photograph Dean for a story about skinheads in the Tampa Bay area.

KATHLEEN CABBLE | TimesIn 1987, St. Petersburg Times photographer Kathleen Cabble visited the McKee home to photograph Dean for a story about skinheads in the Tampa Bay area.

Months passed with no arrests. Then in the spring of 1988, a woman in Clearwater called a friend at the Pinellas County sheriff's office and told him that her sons might have had something to do with Walker's death. Sarah K. McKee didn't really believe there was a link between her two teenagers and the December stabbing. But her youngest, Dean, had called his father while drunk and told him about "slashing" a man in Tampa because "he felt like beating the s--t out of someone."

"I wanted to prove that they were all lying and that nothing like this could have happened," she wrote in an affidavit years later, without elaboration. (The boys' mother and their adoptive father, Lowell C. McKee, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Despite their differences — the couple divorced in 1987 — both parents were horrified at the direction their sons' lives had taken. They couldn't make sense of the teenagers' shaved heads and steel-toed boots any more than they understood their newfound white supremacist ideology.

Scott had come home from a trip to California calling himself a skinhead. According to members of Tampa's burgeoning punk scene, who witnessed Scott's transformation from skate punk to Clockwork Orange-style hoodlum, he developed a passion for random violence. Friends said he began carrying around a fishing sinker tied to a piece of line and using it as a weapon. Others remember him crowing about "boot parties," where he and his friends stomped on black homeless people.

Dean, always racing to catch up with his older brother, tattooed a swastika on his chest.

"Whatever Scott did, he would do. He was a soldier. Scott was the guy running the show," recalled Lee Gaddies, one of the few black teenagers immersed in the Ybor City punk scene in the '80s. Because of his skin color, the McKee brothers pursued Gaddies relentlessly, picking fights in parking lots and jumping him with crews of five or six young men — never with much success, as he remembers it.

"I was from Detroit. Fighting was a way of life for me," Gaddies said. "Going up against a group of inebriated, physically unfit white supremacists was no big thing."

On March 4, detectives met 18-year-old Scott at his father's home, where the high school dropout slept on a mattress in the garage. In an interview conducted less than 24 hours after the Tampa Police Department learned of the brothers' existence, Detective Kevin Durkin told Scott their investigation was basically over.

"I told him that we already knew that the man was dead and the fact that Dean had stabbed him," Durkin wrote in a report. "I told him those two facts couldn't be changed."

Over the next few months, while the McKee brothers sat in jail, Scott told several different stories. But ultimately, the detectives got what they wanted: a confession from Scott that he was at the scene of the crime and confirmation that Dean was responsible for Walker's death. Then Scott took a sweetheart deal, a sentence of five years in prison in exchange for a plea to attempted first-degree murder.

After teaching Dean the skinhead's code — brotherhood above all — Scott turned state's evidence against his 16-year-old brother.

VICTOR JUNCO | Times

Dean looks away as Scott leaves the courtroom after testifying against him.

Times file

Scott talks with Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Michael Benito before his sentencing.

VICTOR JUNCO | Times

Dean looks away as Scott leaves the courtroom after testifying against him.

Times file

Scott talks with Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Michael Benito before his sentencing.

Dean was not fortunate in the judge and prosecutor assigned to his case.

"Hangin' Harry," was the nickname bestowed on Hillsborough Judge Harry Lee Coe III for the often-reversed, 100-year-plus sentences he dispensed. The prosecutor was one of the Hillsborough County State Attorney's top lawyers, Michael L. Benito.

Freckled and red-headed, Benito had a reputation for courtroom theatrics and a stellar record of convictions in murder cases. Around Tampa's courthouse, he became known as "Boom Boom Benito," or the "samurai prosecutor," after he waved a machete in front of a jury to re-enact a killing. This had become his signature move, which he employed during Dean's case as well, punctuating his description of the stabbing by repeatedly thrusting the alleged murder weapon at the jury box.

Seated at the defense table in a navy suit and loafers, Dean looked like a nervous prep school boy. He cried listening to his brother testify.

On the night of the murder, Scott told the jury, he, Dean, and their 17-year-old friend Bobby Hoos, drove to Ybor City, then a sketchy neighborhood popular with punk rockers, artists and skinheads. Although "skins" weren't welcome at the Impulse Club — there had been too many fights, too many calls to police — that's where the McKee brothers headed.

They began drinking late that afternoon and when they left the club around 2 a.m., Scott was driving erratically. At his passengers' urging, he pulled over in front of the Tampa Museum of Art.

The night was clear and windy and as Scott and Dean climbed the stairs to the balcony, they spotted Walker preparing his bed roll for sleep. According to Scott, Dean addressed Walker first, saying "It's against the law to sleep on public property." Seconds later, both teenagers knocked Walker to the ground, where Scott kicked him repeatedly in the head with steel-toed boots.

Scott said he eventually lost interest in the beating, called his brother off and headed back to his truck. When he looked over his shoulder, Dean was about 10 feet behind him with a bloody knife in his hand, he said. Scott testified that he recognized the knife as his own, which he typically kept in his truck and used for work.

"He said he thinks he stabbed a man," Scott told the jury.

"What did you tell your brother at that time?" the prosecutor asked.

"I said, 'What the f--k did you do that for?' "

There was no physical evidence tying Dean to the crime. But Benito had lined up four witnesses, including Scott and the boys' father, all of whom told detectives they had heard Dean boast about stabbing a black man in Tampa.

Before the trial even began, the prosecution caught a lucky break. While the McKee brothers were in jail, Dean wrote Scott a three-page letter in which he admitted to the stabbing and pledged his confused loyalty to his older brother. The state had Scott, the boys' father, and now a signed confession — it was as though the entire McKee family was building the case for the prosecution.

But over the course of Dean's five-day trial, Benito grew increasingly frustrated as some of his most important witnesses performed poorly on the stand.

Dean's father largely came through for the prosecutor, testifying that his son admitted he had "pulled out his knife and slashed the guy." But he also accused Benito of making veiled threats, saying, "You told me if I wanted to keep my tail out of a crack, that I had to testify as to what I had said in a police report."

Eric Tulppo, a friend of the brothers who initially testified that Dean had bragged to him about killing a "n-----," wilted under cross-examination. The 17-year-old recanted while on the stand.

"Is your testimony here … given under the threat and intimidation of the prosecutor over here?" asked Dean's court-appointed attorney, Michael Kavouklis. He had filed several motions alleging prosecutorial misconduct, all of them waved away by the judge.

"Yes, it is," Tulppo said, claiming Benito had threatened him with jail if he didn't testify as the prosecutor wanted. In truth, he told the jury, he had no memory of Dean confessing to a murder, just to beating up a black man.

Hoos, the friend who rode to the museum with the brothers, was summoned to the stand only to second Tulppo's accusations of coercion.

In the end, the jury chose to believe Dean's letter and Scott's testimony. The judge handed down the only sentence allowed by law: life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

"The brother versus brother idea — I just don't see it," Benito told a Times reporter who raised questions about the state's case soon after the trial. "Dean put Dean in jail," he said.

In a recantation he signed a decade later, Hoos said he had lied during the trial about not being on the museum balcony the night of the murder in order to placate the prosecutor, who had threatened to "throw my ass in jail."

"I was present when Dean pulled Scott off a man he had assaulted on the terrace," Hoos wrote. "Dean never touched the man, and I certainly did not."

Photo courtesy of Danie Cutler

Dean stands in front of a mural he painted at the Everglades Correctional Institution.

Photo courtesy of Danie Cutler

Dean stands in front of a mural he painted at the Everglades Correctional Institution.

The Florida Department of Corrections does not document the lessons taught to a 16-year-old with a life sentence. But records give a sense of Dean's early years in prison, when he accrued more than half of the disciplinary infractions he would receive over the course of his incarceration.

He was accused of fighting, disobeying orders and having contraband, the actions of a resentful young man who had been transferred to a prison in Florence, Ariz., thousands of miles from anyone who cared about him. In 1997, he was transferred back to Florida, to a prison in the Panhandle.

Dean earned his GED. He was rated "above satisfactory" in "overall adjustment." Motivation? "Excellent." According to his girlfriend — a childhood friend who began visiting him in prison in 2013 — he learned to sleep with one hand over his heart in case anyone tried to stab him.

Twice he came before the state's parole commission and both times it refused to release him. "He needs to stay there until he dies," the victim's sister told the commissioners. His claims of innocence were rejected.

Then, in 2007, 20 years after Walker's murder, Dean hand-wrote an eight-page petition asking to have the evidence in his case tested for DNA. This type of analysis was in its infancy at the time of his trial — the Florida Department of Law Enforcement didn't begin accepting items for DNA testing until 1990. But investigators had collected the victim's fingernail scrapings and the bloodied fishing sinker and knife were sitting, untested, in an evidence room.

What should have been routine lab work was bungled from the start.

While ordering the agency to perform an analysis of the evidence, a Hillsborough judge neglected to ask that Dean's DNA be collected as well and compared to the results — the entire point of the testing.

Two years later, the agency reported back. It had found two distinct DNA profiles on the sinker and the fingernails, an important discovery because experts say foreign DNA rarely winds up under someone's fingernails through casual contact. It typically takes a violent struggle. Most of the DNA likely belonged to the victim. But without a suspect's DNA for comparison, the source of the second profile remained a mystery.

Over the next 18 months, Dean filed motions urging the court to correct its mistake, to no avail. It wasn't until 2011, when the Innocence Project of Florida took on his case, that a judge realized no comparison had ever been made.

The results came back later that year: Dean's DNA was not a match. According to a forensic expert retained by the Innocence Project, this likely meant that whoever Walker tried to fight off, it wasn't Dean. A comparison with Scott's DNA has never been made.

The new evidence opened a crack in the case that, over the next few years, steadily widened.

Last May, Michelle Cunningham took the witness stand, unpracticed but prepared to let go of a potentially damning secret. She was Scott's girlfriend in 1987, and she was with the brothers the night they learned of Walker's death and discussed how Dean had pulled Scott off the man. She was also with Scott when he talked to the Tampa homicide detectives.

Minutes before he gave a recorded confession pinning Walker's murder on Dean, Scott spoke to her privately, assuring her, "we've got something worked out," Cunningham said. "He said him and his dad had thought of something and because of Dean's age, everything would be okay."

Cunningham had recently learned she was pregnant, but soon after Scott's arrest, she decided not to have the child. Her choice greatly upset him, she said, suggesting the prospect of becoming a father may have influenced Scott's actions.

"A lot of it had to do with that he let his brother take the blame for what he had supposedly done," she testified.

Photo Courtesy of Danie Cutler

Dean drew this portrait of of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela after his death 2013.

Photo Courtesy of Danie Cutler

Dean drew this portrait of of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela after his death 2013.

Prison had at least one positive effect on Dean's life: being forced to live with men of every race and ethnicity essentially deprogrammed him.

"He's got black friends and he teaches a Spanish class. How much of a racist can this guy be?" said Larry Daniel, 60, a black former prisoner who befriended Dean at the Everglades Correctional Institution. Before Daniel met Dean, he had heard rumors about his history with the skinheads. But the man he came to know had clearly evolved.

"I think when he got in prison, a lot of his theories and fears about other people fell apart," Daniel said. "He's absolutely the worst racist I've ever seen."

Dean also taught himself to draw and several of his murals are on the walls of the Everglades prison. Daniel said other inmates sometimes turned off football games on TV, preferring to watch Dean paint.

"He's grown up in there," said Danie Cutler, Dean's girlfriend, who has known him since they were teenagers hanging out on Clearwater Beach. Cutler, 44, said she has never believed his skinhead period was anything more than an attempt to please Scott.

"It's heartbreaking because he's a good person and he's innocent and he shouldn't be there," she said.

Dean's attorney, Seth Miller, declined to make him available for an interview while his case remains open. But roughly a decade after his trial, Dean sat down and wrote in an affidavit the only explanation that exists in the public record of what happened from his perspective.

He recounted how after the attack on Walker, Scott told him that "if anything came of the beating," Dean should take the blame, as he was a juvenile and "they wouldn't do anything to me."

This was untrue, of course.

In 1987, it was still perfectly legal to seek the death penalty for a juvenile, and although prosecutors chose not to take this route, they did charge Dean as an adult. His jailhouse letter to Scott, the piece of evidence that made his conviction all but inevitable, was written at Scott's request, he said.

"I cooperated with my brother's wishes, that I say that I was responsible … by writing a letter to my brother taking the blame for the man's death."

Scott had lied on the stand, he wrote. "I never touched the man."

Scott's plea deal was sweeter than anyone expected. After spending just under a year in prison for the attempted murder of Walker, he was freed in June of 1989. Within a few months of his release, the then 19-year-old began having sex with a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant, according to court records. In 1991, Scott pleaded no contest to one count of sexual battery ensuring that by the time he was 21 years old he was a registered sex offender, barred from living near schools or parks where children play.

Over the years, he was arrested repeatedly for violating probation by not disclosing his address, as sex offenders are required to do and, in 2009, removing his court-ordered GPS monitoring bracelet and running it over with a vehicle. His parole officer found him "visibly intoxicated" at the Hog Pen Bar, which, the man noted, was also a probation violation.

Ultimately, Scott was hauled back to prison for three and a half years and released in 2012. An acquaintance who saw him soon after noticed he was wearing a vest with an Outlaws Motorcycle Club patch. Through his ex-wife, Scott declined to be interviewed for this story.

• • •

Mike Benito retired from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office in 1991 to pursue a career as a private defense attorney. Lawyers for Dean have accused him of prosecutorial overreach and, last October, told a judge that he had "pressured people to testify in a manner that benefited the prosecution." There's no indication from his personnel file that anyone above him ever questioned his handling of the skinhead murder case. And like the other lawyers involved in Dean's trial, 27 years after the verdict, he said he remembers very little about it.

In a brief phone conversation, Benito said he has no doubt about Dean's guilt. He referred further questions to the prosecutor currently assigned to the case, but a Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman declined to make her available for an interview, citing a policy of not discussing open cases.

"I can assure you that neither I nor the detectives threatened any witnesses to get them to change their testimony," Benito said. To have people coming forward decades later to recant "happens all the time in these murder cases."

"I felt we went after the correct individual and the correct individual was convicted," he said.

If Dean has a path to exoneration that doesn't involve Scott going to prison for perjury, it's difficult to imagine. His brother was the state's star witness and the only one whose testimony placed the murder weapon in Dean's hands. And while Scott cannot be prosecuted a second time for Walker's killing, in Florida lying under oath in a murder case is a second degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years.

Earlier this year, another of Scott's former girlfriends, Donna Morris, testified that at one point he gave serious consideration to signing a recantation of his testimony.

"He stated that he wanted to correct a wrong that he felt had occurred to his brother and that had been basically eating him alive for years," Morris said.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project of Florida don't have to prove who killed Walker in order to free Dean, only that the new evidence in his case would likely lead a jury to acquit him if presented at trial. After twice approaching Scott about changing his testimony with no success, the Innocence Project served him with a subpoena, forcing him to attend one of Dean's evidentiary hearings. In a matter of weeks or possibly months, Hillsborough Judge Lisa Campbell will decide whether to overturn Dean's conviction and release him from custody.

• • •

Sworn in and seated on the stand last October, Scott, 45, had a clear view of a scene charged with irony. There sat his younger brother, once steeped in racist creed, his fight for redemption now in the hands of a Jewish attorney and an African-American judge. Justice was not without a sense of humor.

Records would later show the prosecutor had come to court that day prepared to charge Scott with perjury if he strayed from his trial testimony. Members of his own family, at least the small collection who rallied around Dean, had pleaded with him to tell the truth. If there was another way out, one that did not require self-sacrifice, would he take it? His younger brother was watching him closely.

To each question from Dean's attorney, Scott gave the same cool reply.

"Your Honor, I plead the Fifth," he said.

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