By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 1, 2005
Condemned to death based on highly questionable and circumstantial evidence, Ray Krone, director of communications and training for Witness to Innocence, is the 100th person to be exonerated from Death Row.
In 2002 he was released after 10 years in prison, celebrating with a seafood dinner and a milkshake.
He was actually lucky as, unlike nearly every other prisoner on Death Row, he had financial support from a second cousin who spent more than $100,000 on Krone’s legal fees. In addition, the fees were reduced by the lawyer who handled his appeals, Alan Simpson, who courageously defended him.
With Simpson’s help he was able to get an appeals court to allow DNA testing on evidence found at the murder scene that pointed not to him, but to another man, Kenneth Phillips, a convicted sex offender. He also had the benefit of being able to use DNA evidence, which is available in only about 15 percent of cases.
“(Simpson) took my case because he believed in me,” Krone said. “We couldn’t pay him what he wanted, but he took my case and he uncovered stuff that should have been uncovered right at the beginning.” Krone and 12 others exonerated from Death Row cases gathered Oct. 2 for a retreat in Hampton, sponsored by the Witness to Innocence project.
Krone had been a Boy Scout and graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class. He enjoyed his job as a postal worker and was taking college classes. He owned a home and was an honorably discharged Air Force veteran in Phoenix. When he was charged a few days after the crime with the murder of a young waitress at a bar where he had played darts, he opted not to pay the roughly $100,000 fee to hire an attorney, but instead took a public defender thinking he’d, of course, be proven innocent.
His lawyer met with him three times. He was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence and the testimony of an expert witness that bite marks on the victim matched Krone’s teeth, which other experts disputed.
“I got what they paid for,” Krone said. “They gave him $5,000 to defend me—that was his full pay for the whole case. You can’t even get a divorce for $5,000.”
The public defender did not perform any of the needed investigative work and never hired a bite mark expert.
Krone’s roommate at the time, a man needing a place to stay while going through a divorce, testified that Krone was home the night of the murder.
“It was so incredulous. I had never been in trouble in my life, never had a record, I’d never even had detention in high school,” he said. “These lies and deceptive ploys that I thought the criminals used were actually being used by the side that was trying to prosecute me. ‘This can’t be real, rewind this,’ went through my mind. ‘Replay this, back this up’ … but it was happening and it did happen and I went to Death Row. And if they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone … and if you don’t have an attorney, investigative team that goes out and finds the other information, you’re the one they’re going to convict.”
The prosecution used testimony of a woman who claimed Krone was her boyfriend, a claim he disputes.
“They had a suspicion of me. This was a case of arrest first, build a case second … The DA’s office was under a lot of pressure to get this murder solved … They got to the point where they said they’ve gone too far to turn back and the prosecutor said I can still make a case and that’s when this bite mark expert was hired,” he said. “My case was all about a bite mark. Fingerprints, foot marks, none of that stuff matched me.”
A tall, lanky man who speaks rapidly as he verbalizes his 10-year nightmare, Krone never gave up and continued to fight through the appeals process. He was fortunate to be granted a new trial by the state Supreme Court in 1996 because prosecutors at the initial trial had introduced the bite mark without giving the allotted time for the defense to prepare.
In his second trial, evidence was presented that DNA found in saliva on the victim’s bite mark didn’t match Krone’s DNA. The prosecutor alleged it could have come from someone’s glass or bottle at the bar where the murder victim worked. But this time the judge had doubts and changed Krone’s sentence to life in prison.
When Arizona passed legislation making easier access to DNA testing possible as it became more advanced, his attorney secured a court order to have blood from the victim’s undergarment tested in 2001 with the latest technology. Results showed it didn’t match Krone’s; after scanning a national database the sample was found to match Phillips, who was later convicted.
About half of the 50 states have enacted legislation to allow evidence from DNA testing to be considered after the normal appeals have been concluded in capital trials.
The killer lived near the bar and was a convicted sex offender but was never investigated, Krone said.
“We finally got an admission of guilt out of him … with that DNA, that admission of guilt and the support of the media I was finally released,” Krone said.
He later learned that prosecutors first got an expert opinion that the bite mark couldn’t conclusively be his, but then found another expert who testified against him. He explained that it wasn’t a complete bite mark, that bite marks are rarely used to determine guilt, and that at his second trial three experts testified that the tooth marks didn’t match his.
“To this date now bite mark testimony is not used much anymore … they say it should not be used to identify someone, only to eliminate someone. But my prosecutor said this is about a bite mark, regardless of the other evidence.”
When Krone, a native of Dover, Pa., was imprisoned he was in shock and despair. But then he realized that he had to learn the system and fight it. And he needed God to survive.
“I realized I had to reconnect with my faith. I started reading the Bible. I found strength like in the stories of Job, those who had to persevere when the Lord allowed them to be brought down to their knees only later to be built up, and reading passages out of the Bible like ‘out of the darkness shall come the light’… ‘That which is hidden shall be made known.’ Those types of passages helped me overcome this disheartening feeling like ‘why me?’ One of my favorite ones was ‘rejoice in trials and tribulations for you shall find favor in the sight of the Lord.’”
He slept in his six-by-eight-foot cell with his Bible underneath his pillow and read it three and a half times—front to back—over those 10 years.
“That again was a big source of strength,” he said. “My family supported me. I had my faith and knowledge in the teachings of the Bible: that Jesus died for my sins, that God knew that I was innocent, and the fact that I had a few people that were in the legal system that knew my case and took up my case and fought for those many years to get me exonerated … The faith (aspect) was probably the strongest because that put everything else into light, the glue that held everything else together.”
Krone has filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and Maricopa County for ignoring leads and withholding evidence pointing to another person. He now speaks around the country about justice issues, including DNA legislation and the Innocence Protection Act, passed in October 2004, which creates a DNA testing program and authorizes grants from states for capital prosecution and defense improvements, but which is facing funding controversy. This gives some sense of meaning to his time behind bars.
“My little mind was turned upside down when I got inside the system and found out what really does happen. The prosecutor has unlimited resources and funds and research material he can have and the defense gets whatever is left,” he said. “I want to be part of the re-education, letting the public know the truth, and I feel once they know the truth they’ll do the right thing” and demand reforms.
He believes the death penalty should be a human rights issue rather than a political one.
“Do we have that right to decide who should live and who should die? It should be left in God’s hands. But we say, ‘Killing is wrong’ and this is how we’re going to teach a lesson.”