From Prison to Prosperity, Against All Odds

The jury didn't believe McKinney's words or his witnesses. They found him guilty. Although McKinney escaped the death penalty, he was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.

'I Need to Learn Something From This'

But an amazing thing had already happened to McKinney during the year he spent in jail awaiting trial. Instead of becoming embittered, he said he began to re-evaluate his life, slowly learning to release the anger that gripped him.

"I tried to walk away with saying, 'OK, maybe I need to learn something from this. Maybe I need to try and understand how I got here,'" McKinney said.

By the time he entered prison in 1982, McKinney had severed his gang ties, and he vowed to keep it that way behind bars. Refusing gang protection was a perilous decision, one that could cost him his life. But he was determined to serve his time his way.

"I came to the conclusion I would just treat everybody the same. I would treat everybody with dignity, respect, kindness and integrity," McKinney said.

Prison is no place for kindness, and McKinney's radical new mantra made him vulnerable. He quickly became a marked man and was stabbed multiple times. McKinney said he lived with fear.

"My reluctance to hate, my reluctance to hold onto any negativity would be my greatest fear," McKinney said. "I forgive, and you know, that's an unacceptable trait in that environment. I was stabbed multiple times. I probably experienced everything one can experience under those circumstances, other than being raped."

Throughout it all, he continued to try to prove his innocence. In 1997, his 17th year behind bars, McKinney faced his darkest day. The advocacy group that he'd pinned all his hopes on rejected his case.

"When I was denied, it's like reality, the true reality of where I was hit home. And it was like, 'God, I gonna die in here, I got life.' It took all those years to realize, man, I'm stuck," McKinney said. "At that point it was like, 'I can't do another day. I can't go on no more.' And I was just like, 'God, just give me my life and you can have my life.' And so I stood on that promise."

And then, the break came. An inmate who had remained silent all those years confessed to planning the Burger King robbery that had ended in cold-blooded murder. He named the man who committed the crime and cleared McKinney of any involvement.

McKinney was beside himself with hope, but there was still an obstacle, and his name was Tony Rackauckas, who was by that time district attorney of Orange County. Would the tenacious courtroom prosecutor who had doggedly believed in McKinney's guilt, and even pushed for the death penalty, stand in the way of his freedom?

Rackauckas explains how his thinking changed.

"I had excellent, excellent investigators go over the information given to us by the defense, and they came back that this other person did the crime, so I had to give a lot of weight to what they said. These are people who start out thinking that 'McKinney is innocent' is a scam," Rackauckas said.

The investigators became convinced McKinney was telling the truth, that he had not been anywhere near the murder scene. And in the rarest of moves, the prosecutor who had locked him up all those years ago now helped clear the way for McKinney's immediate release. McKinney was amazed, and grateful.

"Despite his career, despite his position, he was willing to stand up and do the right thing," McKinney said.

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