Chicago Sun-Times

The fight and his life

Muhammad Ali bout could be key to clearing man of murder that he was convicted of 27 years ago

November 20, 2008

Special to the Sun-Times

On Sept. 15, 1978, the night Muhammad Ali made boxing history by defeating Leon Spinks to win the heavyweight championship for a record third time, a security guard was robbed and killed while on duty at a Masonic temple in Harvey.

Four days later, Harvey police detectives said Anthony McKinney, 18, had confessed to killing Donald Lundahl with a single shotgun blast to the head. No physical evidence linked McKinney to the crime -- the shotgun and Lundahl's wallet were never found.

A historic fight between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks in 1978 appears to provide an alibi for a Harvey man (Anthony McKinney) who was convicted of gunning down another man that night.
On Dec. 10, 1981, a jury convicted McKinney. And though Cook County prosecutors sought the death penalty, he got life in prison without parole.

Now, more than three decades since McKinney's arrest, Karen Daniel and Steven Drizin, lawyers at Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, are seeking a new trial based on new evidence they say shows that McKinney is innocent. They cite evidence uncovered by journalism and law students at the university that includes a videotaped interview with another man who said he was there when Lundahl was killed and that McKinney wasn't involved.

They contend that McKinney and the only two eyewitnesses to testify against him -- Wayne Phillips and Dennis Pettis -- were intimidated, beaten and coerced into a false confession and false testimony. Key new evidence also includes the TV logs of the Ali-Spinks fight, which show that Phillips and Pettis could not have been present when they said they saw McKinney gun down Lundahl.

The journalism students were working on McKinney's case under the direction of David Protess, director of the Medill School of Journalism Innocence Project.

"Anthony's plight is about the most tragic I've ever seen," Protess said. "He not only has been locked up for almost two-thirds of his life for a crime he did not commit, but the actual perpetrators were known right from the start."

The reinvestigation of the case was triggered by McKinney's brother Michael, who first turned up information about his brother's innocence more than 25 years ago. That was about the time his brother was on trial and Michael McKinney was in a tavern in Robbins called Skins Lounge. He confronted Anthony Drake, a man he knew, about rumors that Drake was present at the murder.
Witness says McKinney didn't do it Northwestern journalism students investigating the Anthony McKinney case interviewed Anthony Drake, who says he witnessed Donald Lundahl's murder. Here's part of what Drake told student Evan Benn:

BENN: You told us that Tony McKinney didn't commit the crime of Donald Lundahl.
DRAKE: No, Anthony McKinney didn't.
BENN: How do you know that?
DRAKE: Because I was there. That's how I know that.
BENN: You were at the crime?
DRAKE: Yeah.

"Drake said he and a group of people were robbing the security guard that night, and a man named Robert McGruder had a gun, and it went off," Michael McKinney said in an interview.
He said he told his brother's attorney, Stephen Broussard, but that information didn't become evidence in Anthony McKinney's trial.

Then, in 1999, Michael McKinney bumped into Phillips at a doctor's office in Chicago Heights. "He said, 'I'm sorry about your brother,' and then he began to cry," Michael McKinney said. "I asked him, 'Did you ever see my brother kill anybody?' And he said, 'No.' It was shocking to me to hear that."

Michael McKinney said he then read the transcripts of his brother's trial. "I began to underline everything that didn't seem right," he said. "I always believed in Anthony's innocence, and I was crushed when he was convicted."

Harvey police were first called about the murder at 10:03 p.m. the night of the Ali-Spinks fight. Lundahl's body was found in the driver's seat of his car in front of the Masonic temple in Harvey where he'd been working as a security guard. Police estimated he was shot between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m.

The detectives focused on McKinney because they saw him running nearby. He was held overnight at the Harvey police station, and when he said he knew nothing about the crime, he was released and offered a $500 reward for any information, according to Daniel and Drizin's petition.

Four days later, police detectives Coleman McCarthy and Thomas Morrison brought McKinney back in for more questioning. They later testified that Phillips, then 18, and Pettis, then 15, said they saw McKinney fire the shotgun that killed Lundahl and that McKinney was charged after he signed a confession.

Pettis told a grand jury he left his house at the end of the 10th round of the Ali-Spinks fight and ran into Phillips on the street, where they saw the crime take place. Pettis went into hiding before the trial and did not testify. But Phillips did testify, telling the jury he left his home after the ninth round of the fight and had gone out for some beer when he met Pettis and they witnessed the killing.

McKinney testified he watched the entire fight and left his house around 10:30 p.m. As he was walking, some gang members chased him, and, fearing a beating, he said he ran toward police who'd gathered near the Masonic temple.

McKinney said that, during his second interrogation, McCarthy and Morrison beat him with a pipe and their fists and feet until he signed a form. The detectives told the jury a secretary later typed in a confession based on their notes of McKinney's statements.

The petition for a new trial says Pettis and Phillips have signed affidavits saying McCarthy and Morrison coerced them into giving false testimony. It says Phillips said he was threatened with violence and heard Pettis screaming in pain from being beaten during interrogation, and that Pettis asserts he was beaten until he agreed to testify before the grand jury.

Their assertions appear to be supported by the TV logs, which show the ninth round of the fight ended at 10:02:49 p.m. and the 10th round at 10:07:45 p.m. -- after Lundahl was killed.

In 2002, Michael McKinney went to Protess, and in 2004, the students investigating the case questioned Drake, who had since been convicted of a 1985 robbery and murder and had been released on parole. Drake, now in prison serving a 4½-year sentence for aggravated domestic battery, admitted on videotape he was involved in the crime but said a man named Roger McGruder actually shot Lundahl.

"Drake confirmed that Anthony McKinney was neither present for nor involved in the crime," the petition states, and also that seven people have given sworn statements that they heard Drake admit to being at the killing.

"The petition means the world to me," Michael McKinney said. "I am carrying the burden that my mother and father carried -- proving my brother's innocence -- and they aren't here any more. I am helping my mother's dream come true."

Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently left the Chicago Tribune. He worked for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1978 to 1984.

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