(WMC-TV) - A Memphis man carries a new motto with a meaning after spending more than three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit: free at last.
"I looked at it like this ... One day they're gonna have to let me go," said McKinney, who was wrongfully convicted of rape. "It was hard. Back then they didn't have no such thing as DNA tests and stuff like that."
McKinney spent 31.5 years behind bars before DNA evidence proved his innocence.
"The amazing thing to me, when I got out, it was night time; I just wanted to see the stars in the sky," he said.
Since his release from jail in 2009, true freedom has been hard to come by. It took the work of his pastor and the Action News 5 Investigators to get his rights back.
"He's still got shackles on his life," said Immanuel Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn. Pastor John Hunn. "This is a nation of the people, by the people, for the people, and they owe the people of Tennessee an explanation."
In many ways, Hunn also serves as McKinney's advisor. Despite McKinney walked out of prison five years ago, his false felony record did not go anywhere, which prevented him from getting a good job, voting rights, or a passport he needed for mission work outside the U.S.
"They put a stigma on this man's life that some people will never look away from," said Hunn. "He's still paying for a price. He's still paying a sentence that he should not even be thinking about."
For the past few years McKinney's wife, Dorothy, and Hunn have worked tirelessly to clear her husband's name.
"He says he is not upset, but I'm just gonna be frank with you. I am, you know, to think of all the years that he lost while he was in there," said Dorothy, who met McKinney by being his pen pal in prison. "When he went in, he had a mother, and when he got out, no mother."
Turns out a simple document kept McKinney from experiencing the freedom he deserved.
The Action News 5 Investigators retrieved McKinney's case file from an off-site archival building of the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk's office where paperwork revealed a delayed course of action.
"It really takes someone with some legal skill, who is familiar with the process, to know what information needs to go at different spots," said Criminal Court Clerk Office CAO Richard DeSaussure.
DeSaussure said it is easy for that information to fall through the cracks.
The Action News 5 Investigators then contacted the Shelby County District Attorney's office where DA Amy Weirich requested an expedited expungement to clear McKinney's record fast.
And finally, in the same courtroom that sentenced McKinney to prison for a crime he did not commit, Judge Chris Craft wiped away his record.
"The file itself will no longer be on the shelf, and should anyone call my office to ask whether Mr. McKinney had ever been convicted down here in Memphis, the answer would be no," said Craft.
For the first time in 35 years, McKinney is now free without any restraints.
"I hope our story will open people's hearts and be patient, receive the truth that God does their work for them," he said.
There have been 312 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history with an average sentence of 13.6 years, according to the Innocence Project. See some cases in Miss., Mo., and Tenn. in this slideshow here.