A local congregation will hold a service of thanksgiving Sunday at 6 p.m., praying for a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 31 years.
Pastor John Hunn of Immanuel Baptist Church said the service will center around prayer, not songs or preaching, and thankfulness for Lawrence McKinney, a member of the church.
McKinney was released in 2009 from Riverbend Maximum Security Prison after DNA evidence proved he was innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced. He served the longest sentence for an overturned conviction in Tennessee history.
"There will be four parts to Sunday evening's service," Hunn said. "First, we will give thanks for Lawrence being freed. Second, we will give thanks that he was brought to Wilson County. Third, we will give thanks that his record has been expunged. And fourth, we will pray that the state will give Lawrence restitution for his wrongful incarceration for 31 years."
McKinney's story took an interesting turn in 2001 when he found his faith.
"The only thing I learned while in prison is I found God. I found God. That's the best thing in the world. When you find God, you put all the other business to the side. Because he's the only one you got to prove yourself to," McKinney said during a 2009 interview with The Wilson Post.
His path to Wilson County from Memphis started when he began correspondence while in prison with then Dorothy Steverson, now Dorothy McKinney after their marriage, through letters and The Innocence Project, an organization that works to clear the names of those wrongfully accused.
After he was released, he was given $75 and a Social Security check for about $13,000 and moved to Wilson County.
It was McKinney's attorney, Jack Lowery of Lebanon, who introduced him to Hunn.
It took nearly a year to get McKinney's record expunged after his release, Hunn said. They tested it by applying for a passport, as convicted felons are denied passports and because McKinney wants to travel to other countries for mission work.
"When (the passport) came in the mail, we knew for sure his record was expunged," Hunn added. "But almost immediately after that, he received a letter that said he was incorrectly given $13,000, and if he did not pay it back, his wages would be garnished."
That was three years ago, and McKinney has had more than $9,000 garnished over that time.
Hunn said McKinney works part-time at the church and at Wilson County Motors and makes little now, so paying back the money has been extremely difficult and would not have been possible without help from friends.
It was at the time his record was expunged that McKinney also applied for wrongful incarceration restitution in the amount of $1 million. That request has been denied.
According to the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, McKinney has not been officially "exonerated." Why? Neither Hunn nor McKinney knows.
Amazingly, McKinney is not bitter about his circumstance. Instead, he said he lives in peace.
"I had to change my life over to God," McKinney said. "God says you can't hold no punches. People make mistakes. I can't live in the past. What happened, happened, I could not change that; only thing I can do is try live further with my life.
"I can't get bitter about nothing because that's the past. If I get bitter about the past, I'm stretching myself out. I thank God every day for giving me opportunity to have me out. I kind of gave up, but God showed me, 'Don't worry about men's idea. I'm gonna show you my idea.' He opened the door for me."
"The clock is ticking," Hunn said. "He spent the best part of his life in jail for a crime he didn't commit. There's no argument over that.
"Instead of fighting, we are going to pray and let other people fight for us."
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