The 1970's were a golden age of heavyweight boxing. Championship bouts were frequently televised and there were more than a half-dozen heavyweights so skilled that they could win the championship any time they fought. I can still rattle their names off from memory--Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, and, of course, Muhammad Ali. In the early '70s, Frazier, a fellow Philadelphian, was my favorite fighter. But by the mid '70s--after Ali had beaten Frazier in two out of three fights and knocked out George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali was my hero.
I had tucked these memories away for years until 2006 when I met a man who brought them flooding back to me. That man was Anthony McKinney. I met Anthony in a conference room at a prison in Dixon, Illinois, where he was serving a life sentence for murder. He had been arrested and convicted of the September 15, 1978 murder of Donald Lundahl, a security guard who was gunned down in his car while stationed outside a Masonic Temple in Harvey, Illinois.
Anthony claimed he was innocent and had a solid alibi -- he was at home watching Muhammad Ali fight live on ABC television to regain his heavyweight title from Leon Spinks. At the time, Ali, who was living in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, was a hero to many young black Chicago men, including Anthony. According to Anthony's brother, Mike, 18-year-old Anthony idolized Ali. When Ali fought, the only time Anthony got up was between rounds when he would go to a mirror and shadow box, pretending that he, like Ali, could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
I remember the night well. I was a 17-year old high school senior who was also glued to my couch watching the fights. Mike Rossman, "The Jewish Bomber", was fighting for the light heavyweight title on the undercard of the Ali-Spinks fight. Rossman was a local boy from South Jersey. Jewish boys from throughout the Philly area stayed in to watch him that evening. We rejoiced when the referee stopped the fight in the thirteenth round and declared Rossman the new champion.
The Ali-Spinks fight was up next. Ali, at age 36, was past his prime. He was still a master showman but he relied on guile, a good jab, and occasional late-round flurries to win rounds. Spinks, in only his eighth professional fight, had shocked the world in February 1978 when he beat Ali to take Ali's crown. History was at stake. A win by Ali would make him the first heavyweight to regain the championship for a third time. No self-respecting boxing fan would have left this fight early. So I believed Anthony when he said he watched the entire 15 rounds and waited until after the judges awarded Ali a unanimous victory before he went out for the evening. I had done the same thing.
My belief in Anthony's innocence only grew stronger as our team investigated the case. No physical evidence tied Anthony to the crime. The case against Anthony was built on a confession and the testimony of two teenage eyewitnesses. Anthony claimed that he confessed only after he had been beaten by detectives. We found evidence that one of the Harvey detectives who interrogated Anthony had a history of abusing black suspects.
We located the two eyewitnesses. Both men signed affidavits recanting their identifications of Anthony. Both men told us they had been threatened or beaten by the same two detectives. One of the boys, whose bruised 15-year-old body was observed at the time by his sister, was so traumatized that he went into hiding to avoid having to lie at Anthony's trial.
The most compelling evidence of Anthony's innocence, however, came from the round-by-round fight logs we received from ABC. According to the police, Mr. Lundahl had been shot and killed sometime between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. According to the fight logs, this meant that Mr. Lundahl was killed between the first and the fifth rounds. This did not square, however, with the statements of the two eyewitnesses. One of the boys testified at Anthony's trial that he left his home after the ninth round of the fight. The other boy told the grand jury he left out after the tenth. The boys then met up on the street a few minutes later where they supposedly witnessed the shooting.
But the logs told a different story. The ninth round began at 9:59:48 p.m. and ended at 10:02:49, and the tenth round began at 10:03:49 and ended at 10:06:49. Under either scenario, Mr. Lundahl had been killed before the witnesses even left their homes and long before they supposedly met on the street.
Had a new jury seen this new evidence of Anthony McKinney's innocence, it would have acquitted him. But Anthony never got the chance to prove his innocence in court. After serving 35 years in prison, Anthony died alone in his prison cell on August 27, 2013. He was 53.
The final bell has not yet tolled in Anthony's fight for justice. The Center on Wrongful Convictions is seeking a posthumous pardon for Anthony McKinney based on actual innocence from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn before he leaves office on January 12, 2015.