Nearly three years have passed since Cornell McKay was locked up for an armed robbery that he says he did not commit. That crime -- which netted a woman's cellphone and $50 -- hung over McKay's head through a hotly contested trial and multiple appeals. All the while, McKay and his lawyers pleaded for the opportunity to prove that a different man, a convicted murderer with a history of similar robberies, was the true culprit.
But McKay, now 23, won't be getting a chance to prove his innocence in court. He won't need to.
On Wednesday, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced that her office was dropping all charges against McKay, thus ending a convoluted legal drama that came to include allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, a botched police investigation and the high-profile murder of former St. Louis University volleyball player Megan Boken.
"We are absolutely elated at the outcome," says Thomas SanFilippo, one of McKay's lawyers. "This proves that justice can prevail in St. Louis."
In December, the Missouri Court of Appeals overturned McKay's 2012 conviction for first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. The court ruled that the trial judge improperly blocked McKay's defense from presenting evidence of an alternative perpetrator to the August 10, 2012 robbery outside the victim's Central West End condo.
That evidence included statements from Keith Esters, who is serving a life sentence for the August 18, 2012 murder of Megan Boken, which also took place in the Central West End. Police ultimately traced the phone back to Esters.
Esters told a homicide detective that he was in the area of the August 10 robbery, that he knew who did it and that it wasn't McKay. But McKay's jury wasn't allowed to hear those details, or the fact that Esters' girlfriend told police that her boyfriend came home one day with $50 and a cellphone -- the very phone stolen in the August 10 robbery.
During McKay's trial, prosecutors were able to offer only unsubstantiated theories on how the victim's cellphone moved from McKay to Esters. According to a recent motion from McKay's lawyers, records show that Esters placed calls on the cellphone just minutes after the robbery. The motion also says it was Esters who later sold the phone at a gas station.
In March 2014, Esters himself appeared to hint at his involvement in the robbery during a jailhouse interview with St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter Jennifer Mann.
"I can't say nothing that gonna benefit him [McKay]," Esters said at the time, "because in the end it's gonna make me look bad."
But despite the mountain of evidence against Esters, evidence that seemed to vindicate McKay, the Missouri attorney general's office fought the appeals court ruling all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. Such efforts were to no avail; all signs pointed to McKay finally getting his new trial. As of early Wednesday, McKay's lawyers were scrambling to get their client out on bail and filing motions to get the case dismissed outright.
Then Jennifer Joyce announced she was dropping the charges.
"I definitely would like to have another trial, because I believe that this is a correct defendant for this crime. But the victim has indicated that she absolutely does not want to go through this process again," Joyce tells Daily RFT. "She recently had a child. She and her husband just want to put this behind them."
Without the victim, the prosecution's case against McKay simply doesn't exist. During the 2012 trial, no physical evidence was presented linking McKay to the robbery. Prosecutors relied on the fact that the victim picked McKay out of a lineup as sufficient proof for his guilt. That was enough to get McKay a 12-year prison sentence.
Even today, Joyce maintains that McKay is the true culprit in the robbery and calls his lawyers' claims about Esters "a lot of noise." In fact, she claims her office looked "extensively" at Esters as a possible suspect for the August 10 robbery, but ultimately concluded that McKay was their man.
"The easiest thing in the world for me to do would be to charge [Esters], if I thought that he did it," Joyce says. "But my job is to pursue justice, and a big part of that is charging the appropriate person with the crime."
Asked if her office's investigation included Esters' statements to the Post-Dispatch and homicide detectives, Joyce doesn't budge.
"We looked into all of it," she says. "His statements to the Post-Dispatch reporter admitted nothing."
As for the victim's refusal to participate in a re-trial, Joyce accuses McKay's lawyers of "bullying" the woman and "dragging her through the mud." Joyce reserves her harshest criticism for attorney Bob Ramsey, who disclosed the victim's name during a KMOX radio interview last year.
McKay's lawyers are now working to free their client from prison, as early as this afternoon. And while Joyce insists that McKay deserved to spend the last 28 months in prison, she concedes he can still make the best of this second chance.
"It appears Mr. McKay has a lot of supporters around him and we're happy to see that," she says. "We hope he takes this opportunity to live his life lawfully and productively."
Daily RFT has reported extensively on this case over the past year. You can get the full background, including an interview with McKay, in the links below:
See also: -- Cornell McKay Attorney: Police Framed Man For Robbery, Ignored Megan Boken's Killer -- Cornell McKay's Lawyers Want Megan Boken's Killer To Testify -- Appeals Court Refuses To Delay Cornell McKay Sentencing; Pastor Raises Alibi Questions -- Cornell McKay Conviction Upheld By Judge; Post-Dispatch Reporter Compelled to Testify -- Cornell McKay Sentenced To Twelve Years For CWE Robbery: "I Know I Didn't Rob Her" -- BREAKING: Appeals Court Reverses Cornell McKay Robbery Conviction