From Prison to Prosperity, Against All Odds

Wrongfully convicted of murder, DeWayne McKinney was able to forgive and thrive.


May 22, 2008 — -- DeWayne McKinney got out of prison without money, clothes or a home, but today he is a millionaire businessman. How did he do it? Forgiveness might not be the first quality that comes to mind, but McKinney says it was a key ingredient.

Today you'll find McKinney in his 10,000-square-foot Hawaiian waterfront home, filled with all the trappings of the good life. It's very different from the prison cell where he spent nearly two decades.

Although he often dreamed of a world outside the walls during the long years he spent in California prison cellblocks, McKinney said, "I never could have imagined it would turn out quite like this."

McKinney's road to prison began on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. As a young boy he lived happily in a modest home where he said he was a shy and obedient kid who worshiped his mother, a single parent.

"I like to refer to myself as a mama's boy," he said of his younger self.

McKinney worried about his mother constantly, because she had a heart condition. He was 12 years old when his worst fear became reality: His mother died. He was devastated by her death.

McKinney went to live with various relatives, but, he said, "I rejected anyone that tried to replace her." The sheltered young mama's boy soon found himself living on the streets.

"I was running the streets in Los Angeles, tired and hungry, and this family invited me in," McKinney said.

That family, however, was a gang known as the 52nd Street Crips. By 15, McKinney was one of them, and crime was part of his lifestyle.

He was arrested for car theft and also jailed for attempted robbery. When he was 19, in November 1980, he was shot in the leg by a rival gang in what he said was one of the first drive-by shootings in Los Angeles' notorious South Central neighborhood.

In December 1980, McKinney's life took a turn for the worse. He was pulled over for a routine traffic violation, but what happened next was anything but routine. McKinney was accused of a much more serious crime: first degree murder.

A night manager at a Southern California Burger King had been murdered during a robbery, and McKinney's picture had been picked out of a photo lineup by witnesses at the scene.

Twenty-five years ago, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was the young deputy district attorney assigned to the Burger King case. Armed with eyewitness testimony, he never doubted McKinney was the cold-blooded assailant sought for the killing.

"The people who were put into a meat cooler by the assailant, and looked at him, told me that was him," Rackauckas said.

Rackauckas went on to describe the horrible scene that faced the surviving Burger King workers. When they emerged from the meat cooler, Rackauckas said, "They saw the young manager there with his head on his desk in a pool of blood."

Rackauckas asked the jury to make McKinney pay with his own life.

But McKinney was nowhere near the Burger King that night, and even presented witnesses who had seen him elsewhere during the time of the robbery. McKinney tried to point out that his injured leg would have made it impossible for him to leap over the restaurant counter, as witnesses described.

But, he said, "No matter how loud I yelled or how loud I screamed, no one really heard me because my lifestyle basically said just the opposite."

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.

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.

Robbed of nearly two decades of life, McKinney smiled as he threw his prison clothes to the floor and walked toward freedom. It was a life that, at times, had played more like a movie, and now it finally had its Hollywood ending.

"Everybody was just so happy ... so thrilled," he said. "The whole yard just cheered me on. And stood up and just clapped."

January 2000 was the dawn of a new millennium, and a new beginning for McKinney, who said that prison changed him for the better.

"I can't say that I enjoyed doing the time, but because of the time, it made me who I am," he said. "So I don't hold any bitterness."

McKinney believes he succeeded in serving his time in his own way. In the face of consistent hostility and repeated stabbings, he said he responded with acts of kindness and respect. In the end, he believes he made a difference. Now a whole new world, one that he knew little about, lay ahead.

"I used to refer to myself as Rip Van Winkle," he said. "I had been asleep for 20 years."

News of McKinney's wrongful imprisonment made headlines in Southern California, and many people rallied to support him. An investigator who'd worked hard to free McKinney helped him get on his feet. The investigator and his wife took McKinney to buy clothes, get a driver's license, and help him land a job at the University of California in nearby Irvine.

Just two years after he landed his first real job, McKinney's life was about to take yet another dramatic turn. He sued the police and others responsible for his wrongful conviction, and walked away with $1 million. At first, he didn't spend any of it.

His restraint shocked his attorney, Jeff Rawitz, a partner with the law firm Jones Day.

"We thought DeWayne was naive and that he was coming out into a whole new world and that people were going to descend on him like vultures," Rawitz said.

McKinney remembers that "they refused to let me leave until I sat down with a lot of financial advisers." McKinney's lawyers were sure he'd blow the money.

Much to everyone's surprise, he neither took the expert financial advice nor spent the money unwisely. He was looking to invest it his way, on his time.

"I didn't really know what I was doing in terms of business, but I wasn't willing to gamble, because what I would be gambling with was 20 years of my life. I thought to put that in jeopardy was unthinkable," McKinney said.

"We really didn't appreciate how savvy and wise he turned out to be," said Rawitz.

When a friend mentioned that the growing ATM business was a low-risk investment that required little capital but had the potential for big returns, the idea stuck with McKinney. Vending machines that spit out cash would become his dream investment.

Forgiveness, integrity, kindness and respect. The lessons McKinney cultivated in prison were now the lessons he'd use in business and in life. He began by forgiving Rackauckas, the Orange County district attorney who had put him away.

"I understood that he was just doing his job," McKinney said. "He was doing the job he was given."

McKinney even campaigned for his re-election as district attorney.

"We had an evening where we went out and knocked on a few doors together," Rackauckas said. "You know a California prison is not an easy place to be, and to become the person he is now is surprising to me."

And when he married, McKinney even sent out a wedding invitation to the judge who'd sentenced him.

"Whenever you tell someone about McKinney and the years he spent in prison, and him coming out and embracing people that were responsible for putting him in there -- you can't understand how someone can be that magnanimous," Rawitz said.

In less than three years out of prison, McKinney was making a good living owning and operating several ATM machines in south central Los Angeles, still holding down a day job. But while on vacation in Hawaii, he had another one of those life-changing revelations.

"I was starting to actually understand the business, and what it needed to make it profitable. And, and I realized Hawaii was the perfect environment for that," McKinney said.

It was perfect because of all those tourists, and at the time, not very many ATMs where they could get cash easily.

"I was able to come in and pretty much build my company very fast," he said.

Today he says he owns 38 machines throughout the state, making as much as $60,000 a month on ATM service fees alone. He says he's the second largest ATM operator on the Hawaiian Islands.

But his success came at a price. His marriage failed, he's struggled with alcohol and he has been taken advantage of by some of the very people he tried to help.

But he doesn't regret giving, because, he said, "When you're willing to give of yourself, when you're willing to be there for someone else, it comes back to you in many different forms."

Giving and forgiving: the mark of a man who has refused to let the past imprison him and in turn has reaped rewards far greater than he ever imagined.

"At times I pinch myself because it seems so unusual," McKinney said. "But at other times I am just like, 'OK, this is where I am supposed to be.'"

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