In 1980, a gunman entered a Burger King in Orange County, California around closing time and forced several employees into a walk-in refrigerator where he fatally shot the manager, Walter, Bell, in the back of the head. The police suspected that Los Angeles gang members were involved and collected mug shots of gang members, including 20-year-old DeWayne McKinney, from the Los Angeles Police Department. One employee was shown McKinney’s photo and said that he looked like the gunman. Two other employees said that “something was familiar” in McKinney’s eyes, and picked him out of a physical lineup. These employees, as well as a fourth, identified McKinney at trial. McKinney presented several family members who insisted that he was at his sister’s home recovering from a leg injury and could only walk with crutches at the time of the murder robbery. The prosecution used thinly veiled racist comments to attack the credibility of McKinney’s witnesses, who were all low income African-Americans. Despite the absence of physical evidence, a jury convicted McKinney of first-degree murder and robbery in 1981 and he was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1997, the Orange County prosecutor’s office received a letter from an inmate naming another man as the getaway driver for the crime and identifying Raymond Herman Jackett as the gunman. The driver admitted his role and confirmed that McKinney was not involved. In addition, two of the eyewitnesses recanted their identifications.
The District Attorney’s Office reinvestigated the case, and in January 2000, joined the defense in a motion to vacate the conviction. McKinney was released on January 28, 2000. He sought compensation from the State of California, but his claim was denied. He also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
In 2008, McKinney died in a moped accident in Honolulu.
- Stephanie Denzel