The Sun interviewed Ray Krone, who was released from the Arizona state prison in 2002, after being wrongly convicted of sexual assault and murder. Krone was brought to Ithaca last week by the Cornell Death Penalty Project, to speak at the law school.
On April 8, 2002, Ray Krone walked out of the Arizona state prison in Yuma where his family and friends, as well as the media, greeted him. To his loved ones, Krone was an important man. But to the media, he was an important number — the 100th death row inmate freed because of innocence.
Thus, in his first precious minutes of freedom after 10 years, Krone answered questions.
“How did you survive?” one reporter asked.
Krone replied he had survived by holding on to the truth; that those who mattered most, knew his innocence — himself, his family and friends and God.
Another reporter questioned, “Given your faith in God, how do you justify his leaving you in prison for 10 years?”
Krone was speechless. He questioned the purpose of his experience. For what was maybe the hundredth time in those 10 years he asked himself, “Why me?”
A Small Town Boy
Krone grew up in a small town in southern Pennsylvania. His family had lived there for generations. He described it as, “Your typical small community, good work ethics … you know — honesty and integrity, you stay together through good times and bad times.”
Krone did well in school and was involved in the community, playing sports throughout his childhood and going to the same church every Sunday. After graduating high school in 1974, he went into the service, and was stationed at different places around the country.
“I met people from … different types of backgrounds, I had more growth as a 17 year-old when I left home,” he said. “I lived kind of a sheltered life in some ways.”
He was eventually stationed in Phoenix. After six years in the Air Force, he stayed there. “Got a job at the post office,” he said. “I liked it out there. I was making a life for myself; life was good.”
Krone played for a volleyball team sponsored by the CBS Lounge, a local Phoenix bar. He explained how the team would go there afterwards and hang out, play darts or shoot pool. Krone happened to be very good at darts. “Top 10 in the state,” he said.
On the morning of December 29, 1991, the owner of the CBS Lounge found the front door unlocked. Although the cash register was wide open, no money was missing there or in the safe. The owner determined that the lounge’s manager, Kim Ancona, hadn’t followed closing procedures. When he went into the men’s restroom, he found Ancona’s body and called the police.
Two days later, Krone was charged with the woman’s sexual assault and murder.
It was 4:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and Krone had just come home from work at the post office, where he had been employed for seven years. He was getting out of his car and was greeted by police officers, guns drawn.
“It was that simple. I had been going to the bar for two months, she was found murdered, and two days later I was arrested for that murder … they arrested first, and built a case second, Krone said.
Krone was angry but wasn’t worried. “For the first couple days I was just thinking, you know, ‘Did I feed my dog? Did I lock my car? I gotta get up outta here, I got a big softball tournament this weekend, they need me … I was stupid and naïve.”
He presumed that the police would continue the investigation, take everything he told them as truth and would go free.
Krone described his treatment throughout this legal process. “They treat you like a rabid dog … you’re gonna be abused, physically and mentally, because, hey, they don’t like you — the reason is, you’re supposed to be a murderer. You’re the one people love to hate.”
Six months later, Krone’s case went to trial.
“They paid the lawyer $5,000 dollars to defend me,” he said. “You can’t get divorced for that kind of money.”
He continued to place trust in the justice system, but began to have doubts.
“I wondered, ‘How could this happen? Why me?’”
Krone couldn’t believe the lies being told under oath “by police and prosecutors, people who were supposed to be representing the state, who claimed to be the good people of Arizona.”
It was a surreal experience, he said.
“When they were talking about Ray Krone,” he said, “that wasn’t me. That wasn’t who I knew, that was somebody else … it was like watching a movie. ”
Flashback to 1974, when Krone was 17. He was in the passenger seat of a car that collided, head-on, with another vehicle. He woke up in the hospital with a broken jaw. When the bottom part didn’t heal correctly, doctors re-broke the jaw.
“20 years later, “ he joked, “ it was lookin’ bad.”
Little did he know his unique teeth would land him the name, “The Snaggle-Toothed Murderer.”
A “bite mark expert” — “that’s in quotations folks,” said Krone, dryly — testified that a mark found on the left breast of the victim matched a foam mold made of Krone’s teeth. The trial lasted three and a half days. Most of this time according to Krone, was spent presenting the testimony of this “expert” — a testimony for which he was paid $60,000. This testimony was the sole basis for the prosecution’s case.
The jury was only out for three and a half hours before Krone was found guilty.
“ One mark made me a murderer,” he said.
Ironically, Krone was acquitted of sexual assault, despite the fact the sole motive given to the court by the prosecutor was sexual motivation.
“ Where is the motivation then?” Krone asked. “What are these people thinking? You have to reason the motive.”
Four months later, Krone stood before the judge for sentencing. The judge ruled the violence and brutality of the bite mark as the aggravating factor, but Krone did not provide a show of remorse that would have spared him the death penalty.
“How do you show remorse for an act you didn’t do? ” Krone asked simply.
The judge told Krone he was going to death row. Krone said he thought, “ Why don’t you kill me now? ’Cause my life’s over, 35 years old … everything I earned, worked for, my honor, my integrity … I had my own home, was making good money, a lot of plans a head of me… all gone. Might as well kill me now. What are you waiting for? ”
An innocent man was arrested, convicted, sentenced and placed on death row in a matter of months.
The Living Dead
“It didn’t hit me until I got on death row, sitting there, saying, ‘this is real,’” Krone said. Krone said his family was his support system throughout his struggle to prove his innocence.
“They knew who I was,” he said. “The system that judged me, they didn’t know me … it’s flip-flopped — you’re pretty much guilty now until you prove your innocence. You gotta defend yourself, the system ain’t gonna defend you.”
Krone was allowed two phone calls a week for 15 minutes each. All letters, ingoing or outgoing, were opened and checked. Visits were allowed once a month for two hours.
“When they would come I’d get excited,” Krone said, “but when they leave you get depressed again. It reminded you of what you should be, or could be … got you asking, ‘why me?’”
After an initial depression, Krone came to the conclusion, “I’m not gonna give up — I’ve got people who care about me, I’m gonna fight back. I wasn’t gonna be the quitter, I wasn’t gonna be the guy that let the team down … that’s what kept me goin’.”
Krone describes living in death row “like living in a bathroom.” His room was 8 by 10, with three cinder block walls. The fourth was metal bars, with a slot for food.
“Food never came at the same time,” he said, “but you had better be up there to catch it, cause’ if it falls, oh well. And you were always hungry.”
Krone said the worst part was the isolation.
“With a cell that small … you can hear and see people, but there’s no contact. The inmates were all locked up, kept separate from everybody.” He mentioned sensory deprivation from being inside all day.
“Your eyes started to go bad, from only having to look 10 feet in front of you all the time.”
Three days a week, inmates were allowed two hours of recreational activity. The guards would take the inmates out saying, “Dead man walking.” “Out” was a 10 by 10 by 10 pen, cement floor, chain link fence around the sides and the top.”
“Being outside, by yourself, that was vacation,” Krone said. “That was heaven — to hear a car horn, maybe see a plane overhead, or hear a dog bark, so you knew you were still human.”
“You learned to adapt — it wasn’t about livin’, it was about surviving.”
Krone was helped by some of the older inmates, and learned as he went along.
“It’s ironic,” he said, “they’re all in there for breaking the law, the rules of society — but they’ve got their own written rules. ’Cept the punishment for breakin’ them is usually fatal, certainly violent.”
Krone formed strong relationships with the other inmates.
“That’s what you think — death row’s for the worst of the worst, the monsters. That’s what I learned—it don’t work that way.” Inmates helped each other, by sharing a good book or music, or showing solidarity. “They (the guards) could beat up one of us,” he said, “ but not 16 of us.”
When the inmates worked together it was one of the rare times they felt human. It was a strong bond between them —“we were all facing death,” Krone said. “Everybody in there had already made plans for what their last meal was going to be.”
A lot of inmates had already made peace with dying. “They figured it was better than living,” he said.
Six or seven inmates were executed while Krone was on death row — he knew almost every one of them personally. “When they walked off,” he said. “They weren’t kickin’ or screaming — they were happy.” He described the nights when an inmate was executed—the flickering lights and the quiet.
“We had our own type of honor, gave our own homage … we knew it would be us,” he said.
Krone said the guard to inmate relationship was very aggressive. “It was an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. There was mistrust, backstabbing — literally and figuratively,” he said. Krone said some guards were decent, and some “had worse mental problems than most the inmates in there.”
He mentioned racism, gang violence, beat downs, stabbing, stealing, “but you didn’t hear anything about it …you don’t say anything … you just hope each day you wake up that you can go to sleep again that night.”
There were different activities that kept them busy—personal workout routines, sleeping, watching TV (if you could afford one), reading, cards, and the newspaper (if you got it).
“We would play Jeopardy,” he said, “with two cells watching it at the same time, and shouting out the answers.”
Krone said that everyone had a “hustle” — for some it was poetry and others for art or even rolling cigarettes.
Krone did a lot of reading. He began to go the law library, and eventually got a job there. “If I was gonna fight the system,” he said, “I was gonna have to know what I was up against.” He was only allowed there twice a week, for four hours at a time.
Krone spent 10 years this way — though not all of them on death row.
When asked about the process that resulted in his exoneration, Krone said it was “luck and fortuitous circumstances.” In 2001, Arizona passed a law that made it easier to access DNA testing. In 1992, the year of Krone’s trial, DNA testing wasn’t generally used. The prosecution had kept the victim’s pants and underwear. DNA testing was done on some blood after legal wrangling between Krone’s lawyers and the prosecution, who claimed two trials had proved Krone guilty, and again referred to the bite mark evidence.
The testing was done by the Phoenix police department, “the last people I wanted,” said Krone. The testing turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because the law enforcement has access to the national DNA databank. A lab technician discovered the DNA was not a match for Krone or the victim and — “God bless this overachiever” —put the sample in the database. It came back with a match.
The man was Kenneth Phillips, already in prison for the sexual assault and choking of a seven year-old girl. At the time of the murder, Phillips was on probations for a separate incident, and living at his mother’s house 600 yards from the bar. He admitted to being in a drunken stupor, and waking up with blood on his hands. After admission of guilt, Krone’s attorneys went back to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor still insisted upon the bite mark evidence, supposedly saying, “he ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
A reporter for the Arizona Republic, a large newspaper in Phoenix, put Krone’s story on the front page. Public pressure and this new evidence led to a new trial, but, soon after, the prosecution stated they would drop all charges, and not re-try Krone. Two trials, and 10 years, three months, eight days later, Krone received a phone call.
His lawyer asked him how he was. “Just another day in paradise,” Krone had answered. He then asked him what he was hungry for. Krone didn’t understand at first. His lawyer then told him, “You’re free, you’re goin’ home.”
Krone described his feelings as “flat line emotion.” After such a long time, even while he was packing up his things, while he was walking out — he kept looking over his shoulder in suspicion, “Wondering what they were up to.” Krone was then faced with a question.
“ Given your faith in God, how do you justify him leaving you in prison for 10 years?”
Krone said he holds no grudge against the real culprit, the jurors, or judge. “If I had a choice,” he said, “I’d rather be me than them, rather than knowing I did something like that. They can make excuses, but they never would have survived. I feel sorry for them.” Krone has since received apologies from the victim’s family, jurors, and even from the Arizona state legislature, making him the only man in history to receive a formal apology from a legislative body.
He has finally found the answer to that reporter’s question. “I have to accept my experience, and take it,” he said. Krone now tells his story to raise awareness of the problems with the death penalty.
“Maybe I was supposed to do this … maybe that’s what it’s about — what I gotta do with the next ten years of my life. Maybe there is something bigger at work here. I have to make a difference.”
He concluded, “They think killing is a sensible solution to a problem. What they don’t understand is, dying’s an escape. It’s the living that’s hard.”