Two Men, Sentenced in Shelby County, Freed from Death Row in Less Than a Year

Shelby Co. Capital Defense team lead Gerald Skahan (left) with Timothy McKinney  outside the Shelby County jail.
Shelby Co. Capital Defense team lead Gerald Skahan (left) with Timothy McKinney outside the Shelby County jail.

He spent 15 years behind bars. Eleven of those on death row… for a crime he has consistently said he did not commit. On a sunny May 2013 afternoon, 38-year old Timothy McKinney left the Shelby County jail a free man.

Since his 1998 arrest for the murder of a Memphis police officer, McKinney was convicted once, had his conviction overturned, and has faced two subsequent trials, which both resulted in hung juries.

McKinney’s first case was overturned largely due to ineffective counsel.  The New York City based law firm Davis, Polk, & Wardwell stepped in to help get the conviction overturned. The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office Capital Defense Team leader Gerald Skahan and Memphis defense attorney Marty McAfee joined as local counsel in McKinney’s last two trials.  McKinney maintains his innocence but ultimately pled guilty this week to 2nd degree murder leading to his release based on time already served.

This is the second time in less than a year that a man sentenced in Shelby County has been freed from death row.

In June 2012, Skahan also worked on the case of Erskine Johnson who spent 27 years behind bars.  Johnson was on death row for nearly  20 years of that time.  Another New York City law firm, Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, & Hamilton, argued before the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which reversed the death sentence.  Johnson’s conviction was eventually overturned as well.  He entered an Alford Plea for second-degree murder and was also released based on time served.

Like McKinney, Johnson had vigorously maintained he did not commit the crime but entered the plea to end the cycle of trials.  Since his release, Johnson has moved to Nashville and has changed his name to Ndume Olatushani. He is married and the couple have adopted a child.  Today, he tells the story of his wrongful conviction through art.

Read more below about the details of these cases and the failures of the criminal justice system that could have wrongfully sent two men to death.

Relevant links about Timothy McKinney: 

Video, web story and links about the timeline of this case from My Fox Memphis

Video and transcript of story on “Democracy Now”

Story about investigation and trials from “The Nation”

Relevant link about Erskine Johnson: 

Story about Erskine since his release in “The Nashville Scene”