TAMPA — Prosecutors have dropped their case against Dean McKee amid doubts about his guilt in a 1987 Tampa murder.
McKee, 47, is free after serving more than 30 years in prison for the crime. He wept when Assistant State Attorney Megan Newcomb announced the state would not put him through a second trial.
"It's been a long time," he said.
A judge wished McKee good luck and he walked out of the courtroom into the embrace of his fiance.
"We always knew Dean McKee did not commit this crime," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which took McKee's case in 2011. "Although the state and I probably disagree about the substance of the case, this was the right result and I want to commend them for doing their due diligence."
The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren determined it lacked the evidence to proceed to a new trial, said Estella Gray, a spokeswoman. She also noted that even if a jury had convicted McKee a second time, he would not face an automatic life sentence because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime and state laws on punishing juveniles have changed.
The decision caps more than a decade of legal wrangling that, in recent years, produced DNA results and witness testimony that indicated McKee's older brother may have had a greater role in the crime than previously disclosed.
McKee was a teenager when he was convicted in the death of 41-year-old Isaiah Walker, a homeless African-American man found beaten and stabbed Dec. 20, 1987, on the steps outside the downtown Tampa Museum of Art. A bloody four-inch fishing sinker lay near Walker's body.
A police investigation led to McKee, then 16, and his brother, Scott, then 18, both part of a small gang of teenage neo-Nazis. Friends said Scott McKee was a violent teen, known to carry a fishing sinker tied to a piece of line to use as a weapon. People who knew the pair described Dean McKee as a kid who followed his brother's lead.
After their arrests, Scott McKee gave police several different stories before saying his younger brother stabbed Walker. In exchange for his testimony and a guilty plea to attempted murder, Scott McKee served less than a year in prison.
A letter written by Dean McKee was treated as a confession.
But at his trial, two friends of the brothers claimed they were coerced to testify and one of the friends recanted on the witness stand. Still, Dean McKee was convicted and given a life sentence.
In 2007, he filed a handwritten petition for DNA testing. The testing was granted and results showed that DNA from the fishing sinker and from under victim Walker's fingernails did not come from Dean McKee.
A former girlfriend of Scott McKee later testified that she was with the brothers the night of Walker's death. She spoke of Dean pulling Scott off the victim. She also said Scott McKee told her he and his father arranged to let Dean take the fall for the crime, believing that as a juvenile he would face less punishment.
Another ex-girlfriend told the court that Scott McKee regretted testifying against his brother and once came close to recanting.
When Scott McKee was called to testify in a 2014 court hearing, he invoked the Fifth Amendment. The brothers no longer speak with each other.
Scott McKee continued getting in trouble. In 1991, he pleaded no contest to sexual battery over a relationship he had with a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant. He remains a registered sex offender and has been arrested a number of times. According to sheriff's records in Pasco County, where he lives, he is a member of the local Outlaws Motorcycle Club.
In 2017, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell overturned Dean McKee's conviction. She concluded that the DNA evidence and new witness statements conflicted with testimony at his trial. The new evidence "would probably produce an acquittal at retrial," the judge wrote.
Dean McKee was released on bond while the state appealed the judge's ruling.
Last month, prosecutors dropped the appeal.
"I was expecting more resistance today," Dean McKee said Wednesday. "It's overwhelming. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for a lot of supportive people."
On his first day as a free man Wednesday, his schedule included an appointment to remove an ankle monitor that was a condition of his release on bail last January. After that, it was back to work at his job as a sewer contractor in Pinellas County.
He doesn't know what the future holds, but it will include drawing and painting — a hobby that helped him stay positive in prison.
"It's been a long haul, man," he said. "I'm just enjoying being able to walk outside at night and not see barbed wire."
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.