In April of 1998, Theodore White Jr., of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, was charged with sexually molesting his 12-year-old adopted daughter.
The girl was one of two children that White’s wife, Tina, had from a previous marriage and he had adopted both of them. At the time the allegations were made, White, 35, and his wife were in the process of getting a divorce.
The girl first told her mother on March 21, 1998, that White had been touching her, and she described two incidents to her mother and grandmother. Two days later, the girl met with a counselor, and during the session she described two more incidents of abuse.
Lee’s Summit police detective Richard McKinley was assigned to handle the investigation and at one point reviewed the girl’s diary. When he found no incriminating evidence, he returned the diary and it went missing.
By the time McKinley finished his investigation, the girl had made 14 allegations of abuse covering a time span beginning in June 1995.
White went on trial in 1999 and, after the girl testified to the abuse, he was convicted. Before sentencing, however, a co-worker of White’s revealed that White’s wife was romantically involved with Detective McKinley.
White’s attorney called the Jackson County District Attorney’s office and was told that the prosecution knew about the relationship, but had decided that it was not relevant to the case and so chose not to disclose it to the defense.
A motion for a new trial based on the failure to disclose the evidence of the relationship was denied. Before White could be sentenced, he fled to Costa Rica where he remained until he was located and returned to Missouri 11 months later.
He was then sentenced to 50 years in prison.
On August 27, 2002, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District set aside White’s conviction, ruling that withholding evidence of the romantic relationship between White’s wife and the investigating detective had prejudiced White’s right to a fair trial. The evidence was “material impeachment evidence that the defense was denied by the suppression of the information,” the court said. The court also said that the failure to preserve the diary deprived White of exculpatory evidence.
White went on trial again, but the jury deadlocked 11 to one for acquittal. Members of the jury were so upset about White’s case that they held town hall meetings to raise money for his defense. At his third trial, in January and February 2005, he was acquitted.
One month later, White filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit in federal court against Detective McKinley and the police force.
During the trial of the lawsuit, two co-workers of White’s ex-wife testified that she had told them that she and her then-new boyfriend, a police officer, were going to concoct false sexual allegations against White. In August 2008, the jury awarded White $16 million in damages. The award was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in May 2010.
– Maurice Possley