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$16 Million Award Upheld in Wrongful Conviction Resulting from Undisclosed Evidence and Relationship

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a $16 million jury verdict in a civil rights action that alleged a police detective had violated the due process rights of a defendant convicted of child molestation by not preserving the victim’s diary as evidence and by failing to disclose his romantic relationship with the defendant’s wife, who was the victim’s mother.

Shortly after Theodore White, Jr. married Tina McKinley, he adopted her two children, Jami and Danny. Originally, the children’s birth father refused to terminate his parental rights. An acquaintance of Tina’s said that Tina had told her the father agreed to the termination after Tina threatened to charge him with child molestation if he did not cooperate.

Financial difficulties led to marital problems for Theodore and Tina in 1997. In September 1997, Tina and the children packed White’s belongings into garbage bags and put them in the garage. Upon arriving home to find the garage door to the kitchen barricaded, White broke down the door. Tina told police that he shoved her but the children refuted that story.
On March 26, 1998, Tina reported to police in Lee’s Summit, Missouri that White had been molesting Jami, who was 12 years old at the time. Detective Richard McKinley was assigned as the lead investigator, which was his typical role for such cases.

During the investigation, McKinley found Jami’s diary. It described White as a good father and expressed her wishes that he would spend more time with her. There were no statements to indicate abuse of any kind. Rather than seize the diary as exculpatory evidence, McKinley returned it and it ultimately disappeared.

McKinley then violated a “very serious” police departmental rule by taking the unusual step of meeting with Jami and discussing the sexual abuse allegations with her in advance of a required interview by the Center for Protection of Children, which takes a videotaped statement from the child that is used at trial. McKinley never disclosed his discussion with Jami to prosecutors.

Finally, in June 1998, McKinley and Tina revealed they had a romantic relationship that did not begin until after charges against White had been filed. Based upon that representation, prosecutors decided not to advise defense counsel of the relationship.
However, the truth of the matter was that the relationship had begun before charges were filed against White, and Tina told a co-worker she was involved with a police officer who “was helping her to get a divorce from her husband, to get rid of him.”

At his first criminal trial, White was convicted of 12 counts of child molestation. He fled the country and traveled to Costa Rica before sentencing, but was later caught and extradited to the U.S. The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed his conviction based on McKinley’s failure to seize the exculpatory diary. See: State v. White, 81 S.W.3d 561 (Mo.Ct.App. 2002). A second trial resulted in a hung jury, and an acquittal was returned at a third trial in February 2005. Pending the retrials and appeals, White spent over five years in prison.

He then filed a civil rights action against McKinley and Tina. The jury found that White’s right to a fair trial had been violated as a result of McKinley’s failure to preserve the diary and the non-disclosure of his romantic relationship with Tina. White was awarded $14 million in actual damages plus punitive damages of $1 million each against McKinley and Tina, for a total award of $16 million.

McKinley appealed the finding of liability and punitive damage award, but the Eighth Circuit affirmed both liability and damages in a May 17, 2010 ruling. See: White v. McKinley, 605 F.3d 525 (8th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

White v. McKinley