Timothy McKinney was a death row inmate who was supposed to be a prepping for his last meal behind bars when he was given a second chance at life.
McKinney is a convicted cop killer who spent 15 years in prison—10 of them on death row—but was released because prosecutors failed to secure a murder conviction. Barely free two years, a Tennessee jury found McKinney guilty last week of attempted second-degree murder and multiple weapons charges for shooting at a rival and striking a teenage boy instead.
Hanging over the trial like a ghost was Memphis Police Officer Don Williams, who McKinney killed on Christmas 1997. McKinney only received an abbreviated sentence for that murder, but now he could serve the rest of his life behind bars for the shooting standoff at a grocery store.
The news is of little consolation to Williams’s brother.
“He could stand to get the rest of the time he never served,” Vince Higgins told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “So I think Don has had the last laugh. I know Don would make a big joke about all this and leave us with this good burn.”
It’s that kind of levity that helps the 55-year-old Higgins, godfather to Williams’s adult daughters, carry on.
While talking about Williams, Higgins said he gazed at a portrait of the man he calls his brother despite the fact they’re distant cousins who were raised together since kindergarten.
The seasoned cop was a beacon in Higgins’s life.
He was the one that inspired him to become a cop, but warned him that wearing the badge was not all tough-guy heroics. “He said, ‘Everybody thinks the cops is the strong arm of the law but there is a lot of compassion that’s required and you have to find a way to mix that strength with compassion.’”
The words resonated. “Even though he was a big guy with a foreboding presence, once you got past his size, his heart was driven by compassion, not force,” Higgins said.
Williams wouldn’t have wanted death for McKinney had he lived.
“I have never shared this with anybody but Sharon [Don’s widow]—but Don was against the death penalty. He didn’t believe in the death penalty,” Higgins said.
There were three trials, the first of which ended in a hung jury. A second trial in 1999, found him guilty and sent him to death row. But McKinney’s attorneys appealed the verdict and he was granted another trial in 2013. Yet again, the jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Through it all there were swirling accusations that McKinney’s representation was subpar, the eyewitnesses (the ones who hadn’t died off or absconded) were considered shaky and the prosecutors were cited for suppressing key evidence.
Shelby County prosecutors didn’t try McKinney for a fourth time after he agreed to plea guilty to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder for Officer Williams’s death, for which he would be released in May 2013.
“We did not like McKinney taking that plea,” said Higgins, who says he was working with the district attorney’s office at the time. “This would have been the fourth trial and the DA just said, ‘I don’t think we put a good enough case in front of this jury without these witnesses.’”
The deal assured the death row inmate a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Judge Lee Coffee punctuated the bittersweet accord stating, “The state got a conviction and Mr. McKinney got his freedom.”
Higgins feels McKinney was let out too soon.
“The family was like, ‘Look, Don was 37 years old when Timothy shot him. So we thought he should serve 37 years.’
“I know in my heart and I prayed every day that Don would have wanted him to spend a good amount of time in prison—maybe life without parole,” he said.
Despite the second chance, there was McKinney back in court defending his life after triggering more bloodshed.
On June 21, 2014, McKinney claims a man asked him for a cigarette and the man’s gun-toting pal tried to shake him down in front of the North Memphis Market on Vollintine Avenue.
McKinney managed to make a run for it but, the brush with death inspired him to buy a gun, his lawyer admitted, even though it was illegal for a convicted felon to carry a firearm.
Two days later, around 4 p.m., McKinney returned to the same market and spotted the same menace who asked for the cigarette.
The former death row inmate allegedly tossed away every chance at civilian life when he was captured on closed circuit video “peeking through the window” of the North Memphis Market, according to the affidavit of complaint.
McKinney had his man in sight, witnesses told investigators.
Then both men raised and fired their .38-caliber pistols, missing each other, the footage showed.
“I was in fear for my life,” McKinney explained in court. “I saw you pulling your weapon, I’m trying to get to mine before you kill me.”
McKinney, who is referred to in an affidavit as “Tim,” entered the market and, witnesses told cops, he “reaches into his right front pant pocket,” pulls a black pistol and “begins firing.”
Only one of McKinney’s fired rounds struck the teenage boy, the report claims.
The boy’s mother, Shavonda Smith, said her son was lucky to survive.
“He could have taken my son’s life from me, and I want him to go to jail for a very long time,” she told reporters.
Two days later detectives, armed with accounts from eyewitnesses who “were in the direct line of fire from [McKinney’s] weapon,” according to an affidavit, picked McKinney out of a photo array. The rest of his life was over at that point.
“I was one of the lawyers that helped him get his life back so of course it’s disappointing for me and he’s disappointed,” McKinney’s longtime attorney, Marty McAfee, told us.
He added that they are going to fight for a new trial and also appeal the guilty verdict based partially on the fact that evidence brought by prosecutors had come from a rogue witness saying McKinney vowed “he would kill a cop before going back to jail.”
McKinney’s stepfather, J.C. Tyus, told The Daily Beast that his freed son was “staying with a friend” and out of trouble. Even after getting sprung from murdering the cop, McKinney couldn’t shake loose a life of crime.
“He’s been practically locked up since I can remember… when he was out his life was fine so far. Until this happened,” he said.
How McKinney, who had violent priors for aggravated robbery and weapons charges, managed to beat the cop murder rap in the first place is hard to imagine.
On Dec. 25, 1997, McKinney arrived to a bash at Crumpy’s nightclub in Memphis. Working security that day were two off-duty Memphis police officers, Williams and Frank Lee. Williams manned the club’s interior while Lee worked the doors.
According to a response to his appeal filed in 2010, McKinney rolled up in his Delta 88 Oldsmobile to the invite-only bash without an invitation. He decided to crash it anyway, decked out in a “black derby, multi-colored sweater, gold vest, dark pants, and gold shoes.”
At some point, McKinney began heckling a comedian who made a fun of his sweater. The security guards threw him out and McKinney says Williams suckerpunched him.
McKinney said he would “come back and shoot up the club or blow it up” and he’d “be back,” according to Lee’s account.
McKinney made good on his threat by returning back to Crumpy’s, but according to the court papers, Lee “prevented him from reentering.” McKinney loitered “outside the club beneath a large light,” the papers say, and “watched Lee and Williams.”
The off-duty cops called Memphis police, but McKinney vanished by the time they arrived. Then he reappeared, parking in the same spot as before.
McKinney was detained and the officer spared him a night in jail.
“It was Don that said, ‘Nah, he’s good. He’s going to go on his way. Because it’s Christmas night and nobody needs to be going to jail on Christmas night,’ Higgins recalled after speaking with Lee that night.
And so McKinney was let go.
Around 2:30 a.m. Williams and Lee were standing near equipment technicians who were packing up gear long after last call.
That’s when Lee heard the crackle of gunfire.
“He turned and saw Williams on the ground and [McKinney] running away,” according to Lee, who added that he and McKinney exchanged gunfire before the shooter hightailed away in his Olds.
Medics working on Williams told Higgins that he suffered an injury that resembled the most notorious assassination in Memphis history.
“The doctors said it was the same kind of wound that Martin Luther King suffered,” Higgins said.
Williams was paralyzed from a bullet that “transected his spine” as it entered the neck and exited his mouth, shattering the nerves that controlled his breathing.
Williams and Lee worked the $19-per-hour job that night without their usual third man: Higgins.
They usually had a team of three.
“I was working a different job that night,” Higgins said through tears, recalling how he had accepted another detail at the nearby Radisson Hotel.
“Don told me, ‘I’ll page you if I need.’”
The page never came, but a phone call did.
“I get the call that Don had been shot,” Higgins said before blaming himself. “They needed a parking lot guy. I wrestle with this. The way things played out… had I been in the parking lot I may have seen what was going on. I may have been able to stop this.”
After the vicious shooting Williams held on for a few weeks.
But the bedside vigils were hard on Higgins. “I cannot remember my life and what I was doing or anything from January 1998,” he said. “I was so consumed because Don was my best friend. He still is.”
Williams and Higgins watched as McKinney perp-walked on the local news.
“I was standing right next to him at the ICU watching the news of them arresting McKinney,” Higgins said. “Don closed his eyes for so long I thought he was gone. I said, ‘Don!’ He looked at me. I said, ‘They got him.’ And he kind of nodded.”
Higgins tried to stay upbeat for his pal. A diehard Denver Broncos fan, Higgins promised to dress up in full Dallas Cowboys regalia for Williams when he was discharged from the hospital.
“He shook his head,” Higgins said, of the man who would have turned 56 years old next month. “I said, ‘No, Don, when we get out of here we’re going to fix up your house so you can get in and out—you don’t have to worry about a thing.
“He shook his head again. I knew.”