“Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse – Alexandria Va – 0018 – 2012-03-10” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
I just saw Ray Krone testify about the years he spent on death row as an innocent man, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. Krone was a stellar citizen, an Eagle Scout from York County, and a U.S. veteran living an unassuming life working for the post office in Arizona. He never even had a parking ticket. Krone was convicted solely on junk science driven by reckless prosecutorial ambition. His story exposed an imprudent capital punishment system that poses a threat to us all. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.
In 1991, Kim Ancona was raped and murdered in the Phoenix bar where she worked as a server and regularly waited on Krone. The killer left plenty of evidence: blood, hair, fingerprints, shoe prints, saliva and a distinct bite mark. During the investigation, a co-worker told police that a man named Ray was supposed to help her close the bar that night. However, another witness remembered Ancona arguing with a Native American man after she had refused to serve him because he was drunk. To the detectives, Krone was the better lead.
When detectives questioned Krone, he told them he had been at home, asleep in his bed during the murder, and his roommate corroborated his alibi. Investigators searched Krone’s belongings but found nothing connecting him to the crime. His fingerprints didn’t match those found at the crime scene, and his shoes were the wrong brand and much too large. With DNA testing still in its infancy, blood and saliva evidence were inconclusive. Nonetheless, Krone was arrested and indicted. The media dubbed him the “Snaggletooth Killer.”
With nothing more than circumstantial evidence, prosecutors built their case around a self-proclaimed “bite mark expert,” who swore under oath that Krone’s bite matched the impressions left on Ancona’s skin. It took less than three hours for the jury to convict. Three months later, they sentenced Krone to die. Studies show that forensic science errors are a leading cause of wrongful convictions nationwide. The American Board of Forensic Odontologists has since discredited bite mark evidence as unreliable.
In 1995, Krone was granted an appeal but was convicted again. This time, the judge expressed “lingering doubt about the clear identity of the killer,” and instead sentenced Ray to 25 years for murder and 21 years for kidnapping. It would be another five years of legal wrangling with prosecutors before Krone was approved for the DNA testing that finally set him free.
In 2002, DNA results showed that not only was Krone innocent of the crime against Ancona, it identified Ken Phillips as the real killer. At the time of the murder, Phillips lived less than a mile from the bar where Ancona worked, and was on probation for sexual assault. He was currently serving time for the rape of a seven-year-old girl. Even more compelling, Ken Phillips was a Native American with a distinct bite.
Krone is the one hundredth death row inmate to be exonerated since 1976 — but he is one of the lucky ones. Many innocent victims of circumstance have been on death row for decades. Just last week, Sherwood Brown was exonerated in Mississippi. Brown was convicted in 1995 based on the same junk science that convicted Krone in 1992. His release marks him the 86th “death row survivor” to be found innocent since Krone in 2002.
Wrongful convictions are not uncommon. Carlos de Luna, Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu — the list goes on. For every eight people executed in the U.S., one person is exonerated. The next time you go to a bar, someone might vaguely remember your name too. Until we eradicate the death penalty entirely, no one is safe.