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THE REGION

Man Backs D.A. Who Wrongly Convicted Him

Politics: The Orange County prosecutor had sought the death penalty, then ended DeWayne McKinney's long prison term based on new evidence. So he has a new campaign volunteer.

January 27, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has received an unexpected endorsement in his reelection campaign--from a man he wrongly convicted of murder 20 years ago.

In 1982, while a young prosecutor, Rackauckas persuaded a jury to convict DeWayne McKinney in the slaying of a fast-food restaurant manager. He argued for the death penalty, but McKinney was sentenced to life in prison.

When McKinney's conviction was drawn into question 18 years later, it was Rackauckas, as the county's newly elected district attorney, who agreed to set him free.

And now, as Rackauckas faces a heated reelection challenge, McKinney has offered to help any way he can.

The two men met outside Rackauckas' Santa Ana office on Saturday, the first time they'd seen each other since the day McKinney was sentenced. They shook hands, exchanged warm words, and the onetime prison inmate agreed to walk precincts soliciting support for Rackauckas.

While it may seem strange for McKinney to go to all this trouble for a man who once asked a jury to kill him, McKinney said he holds no grudge. He said Rackauckas could easily have ignored evidence that someone else committed the crime, but instead the prosecutor stepped forward in 2000 to set him free.

McKinney's case was the first of five Orange County convictions that Rackauckas helped overturn during his three years in office. McKinney said it's a sign that Rackauckas is willing to own up to the justice system's mistakes.

"People have been getting falsely accused and going to prison for years," McKinney said. "But no one has stepped forward and admitted those things occurred. There's a lot of people incarcerated and nobody is giving them a chance to present their cases. When you see someone that rectifies situations over and over again, all you can do is commend that."

Rackauckas says he was surprised by McKinney's unsolicited gesture. After all, it was Rackauckas who told a jury to discount McKinney's alibi evidence and to convict him even though he was several inches shorter than the gunman described by eyewitnesses to the 1980 killing at a Burger King in Orange.

"It was a pleasant surprise," Rackauckas said. "I would expect most people to be bitter and resentful, but he's not."

Rackauckas has thus far rejected recommendations from his opponent, Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade, that the office study the five wrongful convictions to see if there were any lessons for county prosecutors to learn from them.

Rackauckas said he believes the system is working and he has taken steps to encourage his prosecutors to be open to evidence of wrongful convictions, even joining with the county public defender to form an innocence project.

"Our job is to do justice, and justice means convicting the guilty and making sure the innocent are not convicted," Rackauckas said.

McKinney, 41, who works as a lecture hall aide at UC Irvine, said he followed news reports of Rackauckas' involvement in overturning other wrongful convictions. And while Rackauckas acted in his case only after the public defender filed a new appeal, McKinney said he feels indebted to the district attorney.

"He could have fought me for the next 10 years, but he didn't," McKinney said.

"It's not the evidence, it's the person making the decision with the evidence. I respect that, not just in my case but in all the cases the last two years."

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