Nov. 14, 2006

Freed ex-death row inmate talks about his decade of wrongful imprisonment

"Dead man walking." Ray Krone heard this phrase three days a week when he was let out of his death row cell for two hours of solitary time outside. This was his chance to see or hear signs of an airplane overhead or a bird flying by. "Anything to make you feel human, alive," recalled Krone.

Krone, the 100th former death row inmate found to be innocent and freed in the United States, told his story of wrongful imprisonment, his subsequent legal battle and the problems with the justice system to a rapt audience at the Cornell Law School Nov. 9 in a talk sponsored by the Cornell Death Penalty Project.

Krone was arrested at his home in Arizona on New Year's Eve 1991 for the murder of a waitress at a Phoenix bar. "Did I lock my car? Who will feed my dog?" These were the thoughts running through his mind the first few days he spent in jail. For a man who was an athlete, honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force and who never even had detention in high school, it was unthinkable to him that he would be found guilty when he knew he was innocent.

Yet, the first words from his public defender were, "You can expect to be found guilty, but we'll fight it on appeal." But she then took herself off his case. The next court-appointed attorney, who was paid $6,000 to defend him, wanted Krone to take a plea bargain. The prosecution's entire case was based on the testimony of "a bite-mark expert" who was paid $60,000 for his time.

The first conviction was delivered after 210 minutes of deliberation by the jury after a three-and-a-half-day trial. The judge sentenced him to death. After two years on death row, Krone was granted a second trial by the Arizona Supreme Court due to a violation of his rights in the first trial regarding a timely admission of evidence. His family and friends raised enough money to retain another lawyer, who was willing to take the case for a fraction of his normal fee. There was no physical evidence, only the bite-mark expert's testimony linking Krone's teeth to the mark, yet after six weeks of trial with 500 exhibits and 30 experts, Krone was again found guilty, and he was sentenced to prison.

His freedom came more than 10 years later, due to DNA evidence that implicated another man who was later found guilty. Krone was set free and received $4.4 million in compensation; more than half the money went to his lawyers.

Of the justice system, he said, "All it needs is your indifference." And he implored the audience to learn about the justice system and unite in common cause and common belief to change what is wrong and to make it right.

Since states reinstated capital punishment in 1976, there have been 1,000 executions and 123 exonerations nationwide. Ten prisoners are executed for every one set free.

Masiray Koroma is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.