Friday, November 2, 2007

Former death row inmate to speak

Ray Krone, a former death-row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence,
speaks about his experience.

By Jimmy Ryals
The Daily Reflector

Friday, November 02, 2007

Juan Melendez, Ray Krone and Ryan Matthews spent a combined 26 years on death row for murders they didn't commit.

Krone, Melendez and Pauline Matthews — Ryan's mother — are sharing their stories in Greenville this week. Melendez will speak at a 7 p.m. mass Sunday at the Newman Center, the Catholic ministry at East Carolina University. Krone and Matthews sat for interviews Wednesday at The Daily Reflector's office.

All three are appearing on behalf of a pair of anti-death penalty advocacy groups. Witness to Innocence, based in Philadelphia, and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, headquartered in Carrboro.

Krone, communications director for Witness to Innocence, was convicted in 1992 of killing a female bartender in Phoenix, Ariz. Prosecutors tied Krone to the stabbing with a set of bite marks on the woman's chest, Krone said; an expert testified that the indentions matched his own crooked teeth, shaped by a childhood car crash.

Over the next three years, Krone became a regular in a prison law library, looking for a way to change his fate. In 1995, the Arizona Court of Appeals vacated his conviction, finding that prosecutors failed to share evidence with the defense before presenting it in court. A second trial yielded the same guilty verdict, despite evidence that the bite marks didn't come from Krone, he said. The judge in his retrial had enough questions to sentence him to life in prison.

"As bad as it was the first time, this was the worst because I still believed in the system," Krone said. "The truth did come out ... and they found me guilty."

In 2001 came a break. A new Arizona law expanded convicts' access to DNA evidence. Improbably, clothing from the victim in Krone's case was still in police possession. Krone's attorneys had the clothes analyzed; saliva on it matched a man serving 10 years in prison for rape. In 2002, Krone was finally released. He was the 100th person freed from death row in the United States.

Matthews' son has a similar story. In 1999, 17-year-old Ryan and a friend were charged with a robbery and murder at a store in Jefferson Parish, La. An eyewitness claimed to have followed the killers from the scene, Matthews said. Ryan's car resembled one a witness saw leaving the store. The witness claimed to have seen Ryan and another boy leaving.

That story had holes, Matthews said Wednesday. Ryan was miles away from the store when the murder happened, she said. The shirt purportedly discarded by the murderers was too small for him, and no DNA pulled from it or a ski mask matched Ryan's. Further, the windows in Ryan's car were frozen shut, she added.

"There was no way he could have jumped through that window," Pauline Matthews said. Witnesses, experts and the previous owner of Ryan's car testified to that fact during the trial two years later.

Despite the lack of physical evidence, Ryan was convicted and sentenced to death, Matthews said. For five years, he lived on death row in Louisiana. In 2004, his break came: another inmate bragged about committing a murder around the same time as the one Ryan was convicted for. Ryan's attorneys had DNA from that crime analyzed and compared to some from the other man's previous crime. The samples matched; Ryan was freed.

Krone and Matthews are putting their pain to work for an end to capital punishment in America.

For Krone, arguing against the death penalty is nearly a full-time job. He does regular media appearances and has testified before Congress.

Matthews, whose son chooses not to discuss his time on death row, is a less frequent traveler but is no less passionate.

Both say flaws in the justice system — unaccountable prosecutors, incompetent public defenders, racially stacked juries — contributed to their heartaches. But fixing those problems won't make the death penalty itself any more acceptable, both said.

"If we can't make it perfect, and it's pretty much impossible for us to make anything perfect, then we can't have a punishment that we can't fix later on, that we can't be man enough, woman enough, adult enough, mature enough to say we know we make mistakes," Krone said.

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