Weeks before his heated 2002 re-election bid, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas stood outside his Santa Ana office, shook hands, smiled and traded words of affection with Dwayne McKinney, whom Rackauckas had successfully prosecuted for robbery and murder 20 years earlier.
No one would have known that the county's top lawman and the convicted murderer met on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002, but for this: the DA ensured that a Los Angeles Times reporter and photographer were present to record the event and tout it in the paper's well-read Sunday edition.
You might be asking yourself: Why would a then-first-term DA—especially one in the midst of an election campaign—embrace an alleged murderer? The answer might provide a rare glimpse into the cynical world of Orange County politics, the unseemly machinations of its prosecutor's office and the integrity of the DA.
At the time of the LA Times photo op, Rackauckas hailed himself as a hero with the courage to free an innocent man, McKinney, from prison after investigators with the county's public defender's office unearthed exculpatory evidence. Court observers had reason to believe Rackauckas since he was the prosecutor who put McKinney away for the robbery and murder of a Burger King manager in 1982. Back then, Rackauckas wanted the death penalty, but the court sentenced McKinney to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Two decades after the incident, Rackauckas flip-flopped during a flurry of negative publicity about McKinney's questionable conviction. Witnesses recanted, tainted police tactics were exposed, and two other individuals confessed to the crime. In 2000, the DA admitted that “sufficient evidence exists to undermine confidence in the judgment.” By 2002, Rackauckas apparently saw a way to exploit McKinney.
According to a Jan. 27, 2002, story by Times reporter Stuart Pfeifer—the only reporter tipped to the photo op—McKinney forgave Rackauckas, endorsed his re-election bid and promised to campaign door-to-door for the DA. As the Times photographer snapped pictures, Rackauckas noted how “surprised” he was by the endorsement and delighted that McKinney wasn't “bitter or resentful” for spending 19 years in state prison for a crime he didn't commit.
“Our job is to do justice,” the DA told Pfeifer. “And justice means convicting the guilty and making sure the innocent are not convicted.”
[For the record: DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder claims that the campaign photo op with McKinney was Pfeifer's idea. “Stuart called me on the phone one day whispering like he does,” said Schroeder. “He set the whole thing up. He thought it was a great idea as an exclusive for him. He didn't want any of you other reporters knowing about it. We just went along his idea.”]
Regardless of who set up the photo, the timing of Pfeifer's story couldn't have been better for Rackauckas, who was then the target of a grand-jury investigation into corruption in the DA's office. With the election five weeks away, Times columnist Dana Parsons supplemented Pfeifer's bombshell news by declaring Rackauckas the winner over challenger Wally Wade before a single vote had been cast.
“Pack it up. It's all over,” Parsons began his Jan. 27, 2002, column. “Let's put it this way: If you can get an endorsement from a man you wrongly prosecuted for murder and for whom you sought the death penalty and who lost 19 years of freedom . . . who can't you get one from?”
We can imagine the cheers and high-fives among Rackauckas campaign strategists. Wade, who lost the race, recently said the Pfeifer story helped deflate his campaign. “That certainly hurt,” he said.
But the Rackauckas-McKinney relationship may have been a fraud on the voters. No one can doubt the sincerity of McKinney's praise for the DA; he'd just been released from prison. Rackauckas, however, never believed in McKinney's innocence, according to state officials.
Records obtained by the Weekly show that at the time of the photo op, the DA vouched for McKinney's murder conviction when questioned by the state attorney general's office. Rackauckas' private stance helps block the former inmate's right to $100 per day in state compensation for the approximately 7,000 days he spent locked in the state prisons in San Quentin, Chino, Folsom and Lancaster.
In a Jan. 11, 2002, letter to California's Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, state Deputy Attorney General Michael P. Farrell noted that “lengthy” conversations with Rackauckas and Deputy DA Lew Rosenblum convinced him that McKinney was not innocent and undeserving of compensation.
“The Orange County district attorney's office informed me that, even though they still believe that McKinney is the robber/murderer, they recognize the problems that have arisen throughout the history of the case,” Farrell wrote in a five-page letter. “Because a new trial would have been problematic, and because McKinney already had served 17 years, they decided not to oppose [McKinney's release from prison].”
Rackauckas believes he's been misunderstood. “I never told the attorney general's office that,” he said. “I just don't recall that conversation with Mr. Farrell. I've never told anyone that I believe this guy [McKinney] is the robber/murderer. I'm just not so sure.”
According to the DA, he posed with McKinney for the campaign photo op because “I was really impressed with him, and I still am. This is a guy who is exceptional in his attitude and his work ethic—and there's no anger, resentment or bitterness. I'd tell the victim's-compensation board the same if they call me to testify.”
McKinney's reparations case has been in limbo for two years. The state claims board is expected to schedule a hearing on the matter in coming months. McKinney's lawyers will argue their client is “factually innocent” and deserving of compensation.
Of course, questions surrounding Rackauckas' stance won't help his cause, but McKinney shouldn't give up hope. He might once again temporarily win the DA's affections. An election is upcoming.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.