UPDATE: Timothy McKinney is officially a free man. He was just now released from prison. What does he plan to do? Les Smith will have a full report on FOX13 News at 5.
It's only happened less than a handful of times in Tennessee judicial history. A prisoner on death row ends up being a free man.
After 16 years and three trials once convicted murderer Timothy McKinney is now free after agreeing to plead guilty to second-degree murder in the December 1997 shooting death of former Memphis Police officer Don Williams.
McKinney retried third time in 1997 murder case
McKinney's release from prison comes just a month after a jury couldn't reach a verdict in a third trial and a mistrial was declared.
Judge declares mistrial in 3rd McKinney trial
McKinney spent 16 years in prison. Rather than push for a fourth trial, prosecutors agreed to credit McKinney for time served in exchange for McKinney agreeing to a lesser charge of second-degree murder.
This plea stops short of an Alford Plea, where a defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence. Under the Alford Plea, the defendant admits that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Timothy McKinney case archive
When it was over there were no uncontainable whoops of joy nor gut-wrenching sobs of despair. There was just a feeling of an unresolved emptiness.
For the final time in the last 16 years, McKinney stood before a Shelby County Criminal Court judge. The man once convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Williams, an off-duty Memphis Police officer outside of a nightclub, now found himself accepting one of the rarest of plea bargains in Tennessee judicial history.
It was an unusual two years in the making ending to a case convoluted by a successful appeal, two mistrials and the erosion of time that robbed both prosecutors and the defense of key former witnesses.
"The options are to continue to try this case and spend a lot of taxpayer money or work out a settlement," said Gerald Skahan, McKinney's defense co-counsel. "As Judge Coffee said, a settlement both sides aren't happy with."
"The fact that it's 16 years later makes it very difficult to ever try the case properly and based on that and the fact our key eyewitness has passed away," added Tom Henderson, who prosecuted all three McKinney trials. "We think this disposition is in the best interest of the community."
The timeline of events in McKinney's well-publicized case has played out in painful slow motion for both the families of the perpetrator and especially the victim. Shortly after the plea bargain was announced in court, Williams' family released a statement of their own expressing their disappointment at the outcome.
"Mrs. Williams did not agree to this," Henderson said. "I want to make very clear. The family says they're willing to go to trial from now until the end of time. They are totally committed to it. They understand that and they understand our position."
Though legally free, what's to become of a man who spent 15 years, five months and 24 days on Tennessee's death row wondering if he'd ever taste freedom again?
"Obviously with the way things have changed since 1997, he's had a very good support group," Skahan said. "He's got a lot of friends in Nashville and in other states. He's got a good support group here. It was a way to get him out. For him, it was the easiest road out."
"The defendant Timothy McKinney was tried and convicted of the first degree murder of officer Don Williams in 1998. In 2010 the Court of Criminal Appeals granted post conviction relief, overturned the conviction, and remanded the case for a new trial," Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said in a statement.
"In April 2012, fourteen years after Don Williams was murdered, the retrial resulted in a hung jury. In 2013 the case was tried for the third time also resulting in a hung jury. During the period of time between the initial trial and the retrials, many of the State's witnesses, including the State's key witness Officer Frank Lee, passed away. After a great deal of consideration, I decided to accept the guilty plea of the defendant to second degree murder and criminal attempt second degree murder."