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A brutal racial murder, a pair of neo-Nazi brothers and a big lie

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In the late 1980s, the McKee brothers were a pair of drunken wrecking balls knocking through the Tampa punk scene, two skinheads clunking around the Ybor City area in steel-toed boots, looking for someone to stomp.

Scott, the older brother, set the tone, absorbing the neo-Nazi influence after a trip to Southern California. Dean, two years younger, was the copycat, mowing his hair short and burning a swastika tattoo into his chest.

“Whatever Scott did, [Dean] would do,” an acquaintance from the scene told the Tampa Bay Times in 2015. “He was a soldier. Scott was the guy running the show.”

Their roving, angry run eventually came to end in December 1987, when both white supremacist brothers were implicated in the fatal knifing of a black man on the steps of the Tampa Museum of Art. Both were arrested in the killing.

It also marked the moment when brotherly love turned to betrayal.

Scott, then 18, pointed a finger at Dean, to get himself a reduced sentence. The younger brother was convicted and given a life sentence — Dean was 16 when the judge’s gavel sealed his fate.

And for nearly three decades, Dean has been trying to convince the courts the wrong McKee is in prison.

It turned out he may be right.

On Friday, a Florida judge finally vindicated Dean’s long-shot claim. Citing new DNA evidence as well as new testimony, Hillsborough County Judge Lisa Campbell overturned Dean McKee’s conviction. Now 45, he remains in prison as the state attorney’s office determines whether to refile charges or drop the matter.

But the court’s decision represents a major turning point in a strange case in which family bonds ended up as shackles.

“It is clear to any objective observer that Dean McKee was likely framed by his older brother, who took a sweetheart deal to provide false testimony implicating Dean in this murder,” the lead defense attorney, Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said last week in a release. “After hearing from two experts, key witnesses to whom Scott McKee provided self-incriminating evidence, and reviewing the whole record, we are pleased that the Judge agreed.”

About 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1987, a security guard at the Tampa Museum of Art discovered Isiah Walker, 41, fighting for his last breaths, according to court documents.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran who regularly slept on a bedroll on the museum’s second-floor balcony, Walker had been beaten, with lacerations on his head. A single stab would was on his left chest. He died before paramedics arrived. A coroner would later report that the single knife thrust had clipped his heart. At the victim’s feet was a four-inch fishing sinker attached to fishing line covered in blood, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Investigators were stumped by the killing, until the spring of 1988, when Scott and Dean’s mother, Sarah, called police. She said her sons may have had something to do with the crime.

Sarah and her husband, Lowell, had recently separated, but both were terrified by the violent changes in their two teenagers. The father told the Tampa Tribune in 1988 that the boys had been happy kids who enjoyed racing bikes.

Punk rock music was the stepping stone into the skinhead world, and suddenly the McKee boys were hanging swastikas in their rooms, binge drinking and talking about “boot parties” where they would stomp random homeless black men.

Scott began carrying around a fishing sinker tied to a line to use in fights. Dean made a drunken phone call to his father, saying he was involved in “slashing” a man in Tampa. The call prompted Sarah to inform police.

Scott relayed different stories to investigators, but he finally settled on a single account: On the night of the murder, the McKee boys and a friend had been drinking in Ybor City. On the way home, Scott was behind the wheel, driving his truck so erratically that the other passengers made him pull over. They ended up getting out at the museum, where they walked around until finding Walker on the balcony. Scott admitted to fighting with the homeless man, knocking him to the ground and repeatedly kicking him with his steel-toed boot.

Dean joined in. When Scott finished the beating, he left his younger brother on the balcony with Walker. When Dean appeared moments later, he was holding a bloody knife. “I think I stabbed the guy,” Dean said, according to Scott. The older brother’s testimony, however, was not corroborated. Two other friends recanted their testimony at trial, telling the court they had been coerced into making statements backing up Scott’s story.

In exchange for testifying against his younger brother, Scott was allowed to plead no contest to attempted first-degree murder and was given a five-year sentence. He would end up serving only one year in prison.

Dean, however, was convicted on the basis of his brother’s testimony and sentenced to life in prison. According to Jack B. Moore’s “Skinheads Shaved for Battle: A Cultural History of American Skinheads,” Dean’s case was the first recorded racial skinhead murder to be tried in the United States.

After his conviction, Dean continued to maintain that it was Scott who had attacked Walker. Unfortunately, it would take years for the law and science to catch up.

Beginning in 2007, Dean petitioned the court for DNA testing to compare his biological material with DNA traces found on the victim. After years of waiting, a laboratory confirmed that Dean’s DNA was not found under the victim’s fingernails, or on the fishing sinker at the scene.

One witness — the third man with the McKees on the night of the murder — also recanted his trial testimony in a signed affidavit. In his new version of events, the friend said he witnessed Dean pulling Scott off Walker. “Dean never touched that man,” he wrote. 

Two new witnesses also came forward bolstering Dean’s innocence claim. Both were women who once dated Scott.

At a hearing in October 2014, Michelle Cunningham testified that she had dated Scott from 1986 to 1988. She related to the court how Scott was always picking on Dean, but Dean always “did whatever his brother Scott asked him to do,” according to court documents.

When the McKee boys were arrested in connection with Walker’s murder, Cunningham was pregnant with Scott’s child. At the time, he told his girlfriend that “he and his dad had worked something out,” implying that Dean would take the fall for the crime so the father-to-be did not have to face prison time. Because Dean was a minor, everyone thought he would face a lesser sentence, Cunningham told the court.

Cunningham “further testified that Scott told her Dean was actually the one who pulled him off Walker,” court records indicate. Cunningham, however, did not report this to police. She terminated her pregnancy and broke off her relationship with Scott.

Donna Morris was also called to testify. She was Scott’s girlfriend from 1994 to 2004. The couple had one child together. Morris told the court that Scott said that he had been coerced into testifying against his brother because he was afraid he would face the death penalty if he admitted his own role in the crime. Scott, Morris said, was consumed by guilt.

“He just continually stated that he was coerced,” she told the court. “It was a testimony he was told to give, that it wasn’t . . . necessarily a truthful testimony, just what he was told he had to do in order to avoid . . . the charges being brought against him.”

Scott was also called to the witness stand at the October hearing. He refused to answer every question, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In her order issued last week, Campbell wrote that the DNA testing, combined with the testimony, “calls almost all of the previous trial testimony into question,” adding that “the newly discovered testimony would probably produce an acquittal on retrial.”

Following Friday’s decision to overturn the conviction, the State Attorney’s Office told the Tampa Bay Times that the office would “thoroughly evaluate this matter and make a decision as to how to proceed.”

Dean has been incarcerated for 29 years. During his prison time, he has renounced his skinhead views and earned a GED. “He’s got black friends and he teaches a Spanish class. How much of a racist can this guy be?” an African American former prisoner who did time with Dean told the Tampa Bay Times in 2015. “I think when he got in prison, a lot of his theories and fears about other people fell apart.”

The brothers reportedly do not keep in touch.