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DeWayne McKinney's Improbable Life: After 19 Years for Wrongful Conviction, He Set Himself Free

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DeWayne McKinney, who served 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, made a name for himself as the man who wasn't bitter, who wouldn't devote his reclaimed life's energies to resentment and recrimination. He famously invited the judge who sentenced him to his wedding, and campaigned for the DA who engineered his wrongful conviction. He died on October 7 after crashing his scooter in Honolulu.

I met DeWayne by chance when I was teaching at the University of California at Irvine. It must have been in 2000; he ran the audio/visual booth in the lecture hall where I was teaching Social Stratification. He was easy going, polite and competent. When the course turned, as it always does, to the vast inequalities created -- and reflected -- by the American justice system, he finally told me who he was.

DeWayne grew up in L.A., where his single mother died when he was 12. By the time he was 19, in 1980, his name was known to the police in Orange County. When the manager of a Burger King was murdered in a robbery, DeWayne's mug shot wound up in the photo array showed to the surviving witnesses. As tends to happen, they picked someone from the suspects they were shown -- even though, as we later found out, he didn't look much like the real killer -- and DeWayne's fate was sealed.

To make a very long story very short, it took the die-hard efforts of a few people on the outside, and the testimony of the actual perpetrators, before he was finally released in 2000. As his appeals were rejected along the way, he found the wherewithal to survive in the face of knowing he eventually would die in prison. The AV job at UCI was his first ever, and he used it to transition from what he called his "Rip Van Winkle" experience.

After we talked, he agreed to address the 120 or so students in the class, whose jaws dropped when he emerged from the booth and took the lectern. Like the audiences he would eventually address at many church groups and anti-death-penalty events, they were spellbound by the contrast between the horror of his story and the deep calm he projected into the room. He calmly took their questions, which were partly informed by the lectures and their reading of Jeffrey Reiman's book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison -- and partly by their pop culture image of prison life.

As he told ABC's 20/20, he said to the class, "Every day was lived in fear. I was placed in an environment where life didn't mean anything." Yet the day he got out of prison he had declared, "I don't hold any resentment or bitterness." Not even against the assistant district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, who used the case to drive his political rise, and demanded the death penalty despite sketchy evidence against him. (The jury fortunately did not agree to the ultimate punishment.) To Rackauckas's credit, he didn't fight DeWayne's exoneration when the time finally came.

DeWayne taught us all a lot that day. (Contrary to popular belief, for example, you can forget how to ride a bike.) And his example has never failed to strike a nerve. In 2005 he told CBS, "I can have nothing and I'd still be content, because I embrace this moment!"

He rode his new bike around the UCI campus everyday. We stopped to chat a few times after the semester. Eventually his lawsuit settled, and he had a million dollars. He invested his money in a mini-empire of ATM machines in Hawaii, with his wife Jeanine. He lived in a beautiful house on the beach. They eventually divorced, but she now says of DeWayne, "He was genuinely one of the nicest guys you'll ever know. I can't believe he's gone."

I could (and often do) go on at length about the lives ruined -- and taken -- by America's system of mass imprisonment. Not only are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country -- at incarceration rates unheard of in the developed world -- but 1.5 million children have a parent in state or federal prison. That's more than 2% of all children -- convicted of no crime but paying the price for this system's inhumanity.

As a product of that system -- and of his own power to overcome its effects -- DeWayne McKinney's life was as improbable as it was awe inspiring.

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