Miracle on Civic Center Drive

How the DA turned a quiet act of forgiveness into a high-profile endorsement

Photo by Jack GouldMaybe we missed something when DeWayne McKinney showed up at the Santa Ana office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas a couple of Saturdays ago to publicly make peace with the man who once begged a jury to put him to death.

Everybody said McKinney, who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, had endorsed Rackauckas, who is running for re-election on a tough-on-crime platform. The Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times both reported that McKinney will walk precincts for the Rackauckas campaign.

A photograph showed Rackauckas and McKinney shaking hands. Otherwise, maybe nobody would have believed it. Some people still couldn't.

"I got a few surprised reactions from that," McKinney acknowledged last week. "I guess it would be hard for some people to understand. Actually, I haven't endorsed Tony Rackauckas. This all started out with me just stating my opinion—that he deserves to be commended for allowing some innocent people to get out of prison—and saying I'm willing to help on his campaign. That was pretty much it."

Rackauckas was a young, ambitious prosecutor when he ignored the then-19-year-old McKinney's strong alibi and a conflicting eyewitness account and got him convicted as the gunman in a 1980 killing at a Burger King in Orange. Rackauckas argued for the death penalty, but McKinney got life without parole.

McKinney was released in 2000, when Rackauckas' office chose not to oppose a new motion filed by a public defender, which was championed in stories by then-Register reporter Stuart Pfeifer.

McKinney, now 41 and working as an aide in the Engineering Lecture Hall at UC Irvine, says he's grateful the DA didn't fight the new evidence of his innocence. And he's appreciative that four other Orange County convictions have been overturned during Rackauckas' three years in office.

"That's what got me to say what I said," McKinney explained. "Despite the unjust things that occurred in my case, Mr. Rackauckas did step up and right some wrongs. Not many people in his position are willing to make those types of decisions. There are lots of incarcerated people who have the keys to their freedom—evidence of their innocence—in their hands, but they cannot get anybody to review their cases and make an honest decision. All I can do is commend what Mr. Rackauckas did in my case—let people know—and hope that his office will continue to do so."

That does sound like an endorsement.

"But I'm not saying to people, 'Vote for Tony Rackauckas,'" McKinney clarified. "I'm just stating my opinion. Because this is something I feel strongly about—getting the truth out so people can decide on that basis. I never went into this with the idea of who wins or who loses the election in mind."

All right, so maybe that isn't exactly clarifying. It may seem as though McKinney is talking in riddles.

But if we're missing something here, perhaps it's because we're using the wrong magnifying glass for the situation, looking through a microscope instead of a telescope: trying to make political sense out of a spiritual act.

"See, that's what I'm talking about," McKinney said, brightening. "The spiritual aspect of all this is far more important than the political. I'm trying to put to use how goodness is working in my life. But lots of people prefer to make it about other issues."

McKinney said his issue, if it can be called that, is the practical application of the broad-minded upbringing he received from his mother, who died when he was 12, and the Christian faith he accepted six years ago while incarcerated.

"My mother taught me how to deal with the racism that I still encounter in one form or another every single day," McKinney recalled. "Rather than become hateful toward them or accept their hateful thoughts toward myself, she taught me to try to step outside myself and understand what could create that kind of hatred in someone to begin with."

McKinney said his 20 years in prison provided ample opportunity for such spiritual growth. "Everything about that horrible predicament was a learning experience," he said. "Prior to becoming a Christian, I tended to respond to others the way they dealt with me. But that made them the dictator over my behavior, and it made me angry and self-righteous. Since then, I strive to do what I think is right—which is to be giving, loving, compassionate."

And forgiving, which is where McKinney's meeting with Rackauckas comes in.

"Each day, I ask God for forgiveness for any offense I may have committed against anyone," McKinney said. "But to receive forgiveness is not enough. In order to get forgiveness, I must give forgiveness."

Rackauckas did not respond to numerous telephone calls and e-mails requesting his perspective on McKinney's outreach—the handshake, the photo op, the publicity, the offer to walk precincts, the demonstration of spiritual principles—so it's not known whether he perceived it as an opportunity for inner growth or political mileage.

"I don't know either," said McKinney. "It was an unusual meeting at first, but after a few minutes, we were comfortable with each other, I think. I can't control the response of anybody else. I still have to do what I think is right. But I hope whoever wins the election, some people will get that message."

 
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