Exonerated death row inmate embodies gaps in justice system
A former death row inmate’s tale culminated a group of lectures held at 7 p.m. at the Cline Library on Thursday, Oct. 16.
These talks brought up problems with the death penalty, governmental procedures and potential changes that could limit wrongful accusations. This served to give people in attendance different perspectives on the legal process.
One perspective was that of Ray Krone, a man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1992 and forced to spend over 10 years in jail, three of those on death row.
Accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a bar manager in late 1991, Krone was freed in 2002 with the release of DNA evidence exonerating him of the crime. During his presentation, Krone compared the wrongful accusations he faced to that of receiving the blame for a sibling’s misdeed, only worse.
“Magnify that by 100 times,” Krone said of the comparison. “If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.”
Robert Schehr, president of the Northern Arizona Justice Project, said there is an error rate of 80 percent when it comes to the death penalty, and that Arizona is no exception to the problems.
“We have our own issues in Arizona,” Schehr said. “(They’re) structural issues.”
Krone was immediately accused of the crime by Phoenix police officers, thanks in part to teeth marks found on the victim’s body.
As a result, the prosecution brought in a “tooth expert,” as Krone called him, who allegedly matched the marks on the victim’s body with a cast taken of Krone’s mouth, marking Krone as the perpetrator of the crime.
This turned out to be the only evidence against Krone. All other evidence presented, including fingerprints and DNA, went unmatched.
Despite this, and Krone’s pleas of innocence, he was eventually sentenced to death. Krone said the prosecution tried their hardest to break him and his family, to make them admit to a crime Krone was innocent of.
“They’re willing to go to all extremes,” Krone said. “I couldn’t believe it, but it happened.”
Krone sat on death row for more than three years before going to trial once again, in part due to the lack of evidence presented. Once again, he was found guilty due to the “lingering residual doubt” because of his teeth. This time, however, Krone was given a sentence of life in a maximum-security prison.
“I was in the worst of the worst,” Krone said. “I knew I wasn’t going to like a whole lot of people, including the inmates.”
There, Krone sat for 10 years, believing his life was over, until a DNA test was done in 2001 with blood found on the victim’s clothing.
The results of the test did not match Krone’s DNA, but did match a man who was already in custody, Kenneth Phillips.
Thanks to an attorney willing to fight for Krone, the charges were ultimately dropped.
Jennifer Garcia, a federal public defender, said it was determination like this that inspired, and ultimately defined, her current role. Krone’s case motivated her to take on others who have been wronged by the system.
“(You have to) go out and fight the good fight,” Garcia said. “Not sit in an office fighting over money.”
As a result, Krone was promptly released from prison on April 8, 2002, becoming the 100th person in history to be exonerated from death row. Since then, countless media and schools have contacted him in order to hear a first-hand account of his story.
“I started life over at the age of 45,” Krone said. “Maybe it’s what I have to do the next 10 years.”
Krone has also gone on to work for the Witness to Innocence program, which helps promote awareness of a “flawed” justice system, sending innocent people to death row.
The organization also helps reacquaint prisoners to normal life once released, something Krone feels is necessary.
“When you’re released, (there’s) no preparation for when you come out,” Krone said. “We gotta take that meanness out of them.”
Earlier in the evening, Schehr said roughly 2 percent of the people incarcerated are innocent, according to conservatives. He said given that 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, an estimated 40,000 of them are innocent.
Twenty-three people have been executed in Arizona since 1973, but Garcia said things have lightened up a bit. Three reversals have already taken place this year, with her office being one of those centralizing factors.
With these modifications, Krone himself acknowledges how much the justice system has changed. Despite this, he knows problems still happen within the legal system, and urges people both in and out of jail to “have some little flame of hope.”
“Remember my story, find strength in that,” Krone said. “Be strong, have faith (and) keep this system fair and just.”