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Dean McKee

Other Florida DNA Exonerations
In the early morning hours of December 20, 1987, 41-year-old Isaiah Walker was stabbed to death on a balcony on the north side of the Tampa Museum of Art in Tampa, Florida. Walker, a Vietnam veteran who had received a Purple Heart, was known to sleep outside, and the balcony was a spot where homeless people were known to spend the night.

A museum security guard who heard sounds of a fight alerted police. When they arrived at the scene, officers found a fishing lead sinker with blood on it near Walker’s body. He had suffered what appeared to be repeated blows to the head.

The crime remained unsolved until March 1988, when Lowell McKee of Clearwater, Florida, called police. Lowell reported that about a week earlier, he had a conversation with his 16-year-old adopted son, Dean, during which he told Dean to “straighten up his act,” and Dean replied that “it might be too late.”

Lowell said that Dean said that he and his 18-year-old brother, Scott, had been in a fight in Tampa by a museum. According to Lowell, Dean said that during the fight, Scott “split and left him,” and Dean “pulled out a knife and slashed the guy.” Lowell said Dean described the knife as double-edged and that he had learned from a newspaper article that the victim died.

Police went to the McKee home on March 4, 1988 to interview Lowell and Scott, who was there with his girlfriend, Michelle Cunningham. By the end of the day, police had arrested Dean and both he and Scott were charged with the first-degree murder of Walker.

Police said that Dean admitted that he and Scott were neo-Nazi skinheads and that after spending the night drinking, Scott had asked if he wanted to beat someone up. Dean said they were on their way home and stopped by the museum because Scott was driving erratically. They saw Walker and confronted him, saying it was illegal to sleep on the balcony. When Walker refused to leave, Dean said, they attacked him and Scott kicked Walker in the head with his steel-toed boots. Police said Dean admitted that he stabbed Walker in the chest.

Scott reached an agreement with Hillsborough County prosecutors to testify against Dean. In return, he pled no-contest to a charge of attempted murder in exchange for a five-year prison term.

On June 13, 1988, Dean went to trial in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. Scott testified that on the night of December 19, 1987, he, Dean and another friend, 17-year-old Bobby Hoos, were out drinking at a number of clubs. At about 2:00 a.m., they left the Impulse nightclub and were driving to Clearwater in Scott’s truck. A fourth passenger, Victoria Smith, was passed out.

After pulling over at the museum because Scott was driving erratically, Scott said, he and Dean went up the north stairs of the museum onto the balcony. There they found Walker, who was getting ready to go to sleep on his bedroll. Scott testified that Dean yelled at Walker that it was against the law to sleep on public property. When Walker retorted, “What are you going to do about it?” he jumped on Walker.

Scott said that he kicked the victim in the head with steel-toed boots and that he thought Dean fought him as well. Scott said he then said, “This man has had enough” and ran back to the truck. He said that when Dean got to the truck, he was carrying a bloody knife and said, “I think I stabbed a man.”

Scott told the jury he recognized the knife as being one that he kept in his truck and used for work. He identified a knife police had seized from Scott’s bedroom as the knife he saw in Dean’s hand. Scott said they initially left it in the truck. He said that Dean may have given him the knife back sometime between December and March.

Hoos testified that a few days after the incident, Dean admitted to him that he “got into a fight with a nigger and he thought he had stabbed him.”

Dr. Peter Lardizabal, who performed the autopsy, testified that he concluded that Walker died from a stab wound to the left chest that penetrated Walker’s heart.

Dr. Lardizabal said the wound was consistent with having been inflicted by the knife entered into evidence. He also identified numerous lacerations on Walker’s head that were consistent with blunt trauma, possibly inflicted by a steel-toed boot.

Lowell testified about his conversation with Dean, during which Dean allegedly admitted he had stabbed Walker. On cross-examination, however, he claimed that the prosecutor had pressured him to testify.

Seventeen-year-old Eric Tulppo, who knew both brothers, testified that Dean boasted to him that he “beat up a nigger and he thought he killed him.” However, during cross-examination, Tulppo recanted that testimony. He said his testimony was false and that he had testified to what the prosecutor told him to say under threat of prosecution.

The prosecution also introduced a letter Dean wrote to Scott on April 14, 1988, while they both were in the Hillsborough County Jail, in which Dean wrote, “You didn’t kill him, I did.”

Dean’s lawyers contended that Scott was the leader and dominated Dean, even using physical force against him. The defense argued that Scott coerced Dean into taking the fall for him because, given that Scott was older, Scott faced the death penalty and Dean would likely only be tried and sentenced as a juvenile. However, Dean was charged as an adult.

Victoria Smith testified that at the scene, she saw Scott holding a knife and that he wiped blood off it.

David Scott McClinch testified that Scott admitted to him that he “took care” of Walker, a statement McClinch believed to mean that Scott, not Dean, stabbed Walker.

The defense also suggested that a homeless man, Theotis Davis, could have been the attacker. Shortly after the attack, police stopped Davis near the museum with blood on his pants and shirt, and a bag with fishing gear in it, including fishing line. The defense presented evidence that the blood found on Davis’s clothing was consistent with Walker’s blood type and noted that a bloody fishing sinker was found near Walker’s body.

On June 17, 1988, the jury convicted McKee of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years.

In 1990, the Florida Second District Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence. Over the next 16 years, McKee filed several unsuccessful post-conviction motions for a new trial. Some of the petitions were based on a 2000 recantation from Hoos that his trial testimony implicating Dean was false and the result of prosecutorial coercion.

In May 2007, McKee, acting as his own lawyer, filed a motion requesting DNA testing. In December 2008, the motion was granted and the Tampa Police department was ordered to send the evidence in the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for DNA testing. However, the court order did not call for collection of a sample of McKee’s DNA for comparison.

In February 2009, the prosecution reported that fingernail scrapings from Walker, the fishing sinker, a piece of fishing line, two knives, and a box cutter were sent for DNA testing. In May 2009, the prosecution reported that a mixture of DNA was identified from scrapings from four of the victim’s ten fingernails, as well as from the fishing sinker. The major contributor from four of the fingers was the same as the major contributor on the six other fingernails and apparently was Walker’s DNA. However, there also was a minor contributor to the mixture from four fingernails. That minor file was not compared to McKee’s profile because no sample of his DNA had been collected.

Over the next 18 months, McKee filed numerous motions and appeared at numerous hearings in an attempt to obtain an order to collect his DNA for comparison. In December 2010, the request was denied.

In January 2011, Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, entered the case on behalf of McKee and moved for reconsideration of the denial. In March 2011, McKee’s request was granted, and his DNA was collected. On April 15, 2011, FDLE issued an amended report that said McKee was excluded as a contributor to DNA found under Walker’s fingernails and the fishing sinker.

In April 2013, Miller filed a post-conviction motion to vacate McKee’s conviction based upon the DNA test results.

In 2014 and 2015, evidentiary hearings were held. An expert testified that it was highly likely that the foreign DNA underneath Walker’s fingernails was deposited there by the perpetrator and that McKee was excluded as a contributor of that DNA.

In addition, McKee’s legal team presented testimony from Michelle Cunningham, who was Scott McKee’s girlfriend at the time of the crime, as well as Donna Morris, who dated Scott McKee on and off for 10 years beginning in 1994.

Cunningham testified that she was pregnant with Scott’s child at the time of the crime. She said that after hearing about the crime on the radio, she was with Scott and Dean when they talked about it. She testified that Scott told her that he fought with Walker, and that Dean had to drag him away to get him to stop.

Cunningham also testified that she accompanied Scott to the police station on March 4, 1988 when police arrested him. She said that Scott told her that he and his father, Lowell, had agreed that Dean would admit guilt because he was younger and would not be punished as severely. Cunningham said that within two months, she terminated her pregnancy. Scott, who was in jail, was furious, she said, and told her that one of the reasons Dean took the fall was because she was pregnant with Scott’s child.

Morris testified that in the early 2000s, she and Scott had several conversations during which he said the prosecution coerced him to testify against Dean or face a murder charge and death sentence. Morris said Scott admitted the prosecutor told him what to say and that his testimony wasn’t truthful, although he did not get into specifics.

Morris said that Scott claimed he was going to recant his trial testimony and sign an affidavit saying his testimony was coerced to correct the wrong he had done to Dean. However, Scott never did, she said, because he wanted to protect the rest of his family.

During the hearing, Scott was called as a witness. He declined to testify and invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

In October 2017, Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Campbell granted the defense motion and vacated Dean’s conviction and sentence.

“In the absence of physical evidence demonstrating that (Dean McKee) was the one who stabbed Walker, the Court finds that the additional testimony by Donna Morris and Michelle Cunningham calls almost all of the previous trial testimony into question,” the judge ruled. “As it was this testimony that served as the basis for defendant’s conviction, the Court finds the newly discovered testimony would probably produce an acquittal on retrial.”

In November 2017, the prosecution appealed the ruling. On January 9, 2018, while the appeal was pending, McKee was released on bond, nearly 30 years after he was convicted.

On December 28, 2018, the prosecution dismissed its appeal. On January 30, 2019, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/14/2019
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1987
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*