Dean McKee of Tampa, FL was 16 years old in 1987 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the fatal stabbing of Isaiah Walker, a displaced decorated war veteran. Dean McKee and his older brother Scott were known as angry white supremacists whose binge-drinking and violence against homeless black men helped make them suspects in the investigation; ultimately, both brothers were arrested and charged with the crime. Always quick to follow the older brother he idolized, Dean suffered the ultimate betrayal when his brother testified against him. Scott claimed Dean stabbed the victim, and he coerced two witnesses to make false statements to back up his story. Charged only with attempted murder, Scott would serve just one year of his 5-year sentence.
After the conviction, Dean continued to maintain that Scott stabbed Mr. Walker, but it would take years for the science and the law to help prove his claims. In January 2018, at age 45, Dean was given new hope for freedom when a Florida judge overturned his conviction after nearly three decades trying to convince the courts that it was in fact his older brother Scott McKee who committed the heinous crime. Dean was released last year pending the State’s appeal. On January 30, 2019, Dean McKee was finally exonerated and the State of Florida filed paperwork to drop all charges against him related to the 1987 murder.
DNA-testing of the evidence—trace amounts of biological material under the victim’s fingernails and on a fishing sinker found at the scene—confirmed it was not Dean’s DNA. DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) forensics director, Dr. Julie Heinig, was retained as a DNA expert by the lawyers at the Innocence Project of Florida to help explain the scientific implications of the DNA-testing conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Dr. Heinig’s competence and reputation as a DNA expert for the last 20+ years proved invaluable to the court’s decision regarding the DNA evidence. Specifically noting the scientific research and experience in her own laboratory at DDC, Dr. Heinig was able to educate the court about the significance of the presence or absence of DNA under fingernails of a violent-crime victim. Hillsborough County Judge Lisa Campbell took this scientific information, as well as new testimony from witnesses who recanted earlier statements implicating Dean, and overturned Dean McKee’s conviction on Oct 20, 2017. Mr. McKee remained in prison as the state attorney’s office decided if the state would drop the case or file new charges against him.
Lead defense attorney, Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida stated upon McKee’s release, “Dr. Julie Heinig provided vital testimony demonstrating that foreign DNA underneath the victim’s fingernails likely got there during this crime and that that DNA did not belong to Dean McKee. The court credited this expert testimony and it contributed to the court overturning Mr. McKee’s conviction after almost 30 years of wrongful incarceration.”
Dr. Heinig and the forensic team at DDC are often called for their expertise in post-conviction cases in which DNA plays a major role. Since 2006, DDC Forensics has worked over 100 such cases with difficult and often degraded samples that may hold the key to justice. Twelve such cases tested at DDC have resulted in exonerations, over 15 have confirmed guilt, and many others are still in process.