Dead man walking

In 1992, former US Air Force sergeant Ray Krone was wrongfully convicted of the brutal killing of mum-of-three Kim Ancona – and sentenced to death. These days he is a campaigner against the death penalty. He talks to Elizabeth Joyce.

Free man – Ray Krone in front of the clocktower at the University of Birmingham
Free man – Ray Krone in front of the clocktower at the University of Birmingham

Ray Krone, a postman, with no criminal record, spent a decade in one of America’s most notorious prisons, including almost three years on death row.

However, changes to DNA laws would eventually prove his innocence and, on April 8, 2002, he walked free from jail, becoming the 100th person exonerated from the death penalty.

This is his story in his own words:

"It was a December morning. Christmas had been and gone. My dog was barking. He was a big doberman and didn’t bark much so when he did, I paid attention. As I let him out, there were two men on my driveway and my first reaction was “Can I help you?”. They just stared at me and said “Do you know Kim Ancona?”

Ray slept on a concrete slab while imprisoned in Arizona
Ray slept on a concrete slab while imprisoned in Arizona

I thought about it for a while and said “No sirs, I do not”. They told me she worked at CBS Lounge, where I’d been playing darts and volleyball for about two months. I said that I knew there was a girl called Kim who worked there but I didn’t know her.

They just looked at each other and then said “Yes you do, you’re her boyfriend and she’s dead”. Then they pulled back their jackets to show their homicide detective badges and told me we were going downtown.

This was the moment I learned Kim Ancona was dead.

I went with them and initially it wasn’t so bad because I was thinking “I’ll be out in a minute, this will all be over soon”. They took my fingerprints, blood and hair samples and made me bite into a piece of Styrofoam for a moulding of my teeth. I told them I was home in bed on the night in question and my roommate knew I was there. They let me go. I thought that was it.

Then, at 4pm on New Year’s Eve as I was pulling on to my driveway after work, police in full riot gear and guns drawn jumped out on me screaming “Freeze! Don’t move!”.

I was arrested and everything from then on started to change. They said the bitemarks on Kim’s body matched my teeth and they had an “expert” to prove it. They said they found my fingerprints and footprints at the crime scene. The footprints they found were a size nine, I wear a size 11. We found out later that they changed the reports to say it was a size 11. They said my roommate was lying to cover for me.

They charged me with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

Horrendous

Until then, my life had been like a nice, normal musical but now it was like a horror movie. It was horrendous not being in control any more, I was like “Reality, please come back to me!”. I was 35 but there’s nothing in life that can prepare you for this. Before then, I’d been a believer in the justice system and loved my country. I was in the Air Force for six years with top secret clearance, I was a mailman for seven years entrusted with people’s personal documents, it was unusual and frightening not to be trusted.

They sent me to the Arizona State Prison Complex, known as the toughest in America. They made us sleep outside in shabby tents in the desert, they made us wear pink underwear, they fed us green baloney.

Even at this point, I was still thinking “When will they let me out? I’ve got a big softball game this weekend. I’ve got to feed my dog”. I was completely naive, I thought the police were still out there doing their job and searching for the real murderer.

They gave me a public attorney, the first thing they said to me was “We expect you to be found guilty, but don’t worry, we’ll fight it on appeal”. They were getting paid just $5,000 to defend me in a capital murder trial – you can’t even get a divorce for $5,000.

Ray Krone talking to feature writer Elizabeth Joyce
Ray Krone talking to feature writer Elizabeth Joyce

Just seven months later, I was in the courtroom on trial for murder. The trial took just three-and-a-half days. The prosecutor was a powerful man but I was still thinking the truth will out.

After I took to the stand, I felt like a beat dog. It was exhausting. The jury was out for three-and-a-half hours and they found me guilty of murder and kidnapping but not the sexual assault. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Four months later, I was back for sentencing. They called me a heartless monster, an unremorseful killer – but how can you be remorseful for something you haven’t done?

This was the aggravating factor that got me sentenced to death.

I was sent to death row the next day. I was in a bus all by myself, I was chained up. But even then I knew I was going to fight. I had lost my belief, faith and trust in the system and the government so I knew I must educate myself and fight it.

Death row is isolating. You have no physical contact at all. You were only let out of your cell three times a week – that was my comfort, being outside for two hours and maybe hearing a dog bark or an aeroplane fly overhead.

But I was a dead man walking. My cell was just a cinderblock box, I slept on a concrete slab with one Army blanket, one sheet and one towel. I used to wrap my sneakers in my towel and that was my pillow.

I used to read a lot and do whatever exercise I could. You couldn’t see anyone else outside the cell, you couldn’t have private conversations – not that I really wanted to, I didn’t want to talk about my case or my friends and family.

I just felt so out of place. The guards don’t treat you like a person. They think that you’re a monster, that you’re dangerous.

They’d let your food go cold, they’d leave it outside your cell where you could see it for two hours and then just push it though the hatch stone cold. Sometimes it would fall on the floor but they didn’t care. If you asked to see the prison doctor, they’d say “Why? You’re not going to be here for much longer”.

When you’re treated like an animal, it’s hard to fight not becoming an animal.

You would be thrown to the ground, stripped searched, the stuff in your cell was turned upside down and all the while I was thinking “You can trust me, I’m a good guy”.

But there was nothing that anyone could say or do that made them think you were a human being.

People would try to kill themselves, they would slash their wrists, try and hang themselves with towels or jump off things, but the guards would always rush in to save them. You see, they wanted you to die on their terms. And, to be honest, death was not the ultimate punishment, living in that hell was. There were riots and I was stabbed a number of times. There were gangs that ran the jail and it was all based on race.

My family were 2,500 miles away in Pennsylvania so it’s not like they could come and see me regularly – it took time, money, work, aeroplanes. I wanted to see them but it was hard. I had to talk to them through a pane of glass on a telephone, my other arm and legs shackled. Can you imagine that? My mom and sister seeing me like that. So I would look forward to their visits but I would also feel a depression every time I saw those tears in my mother’s eyes.

I read up on law while I was locked up and I became a legal rep for other inmates, defending them on internal matters and helping them with their cases on the outside.

I appealed my conviction and got a second trial in February 1996. An attorney in Florida had heard about my case and took it on, but my parents still had to remortgage their house and my local church, where I had sung in the choir, held bake sales and the like to raise money.

This trial lasted for six-and-a-half weeks. It came out that the DNA didn’t match me, the saliva didn’t match me and I thought this was all good news.

But the prosecutor wanted to win the case against me at all costs. He would do anything. He argued that the DNA thing was meaningless, that we were all lying.

The jury retired. Three days later they came back with a guilty verdict.

Ray Krone walks free with attourney Christopher J Plaud
Ray Krone walks free with attourney Christopher J Plaud

It was much harder the second time. The jurors had tears in their eyes and the judge’s voice was breaking up but the prosecution table was all jumping up and down and high-fiving each other like they’d just won the big game.

I almost fell to my knees. I heard a horrible scream and it was my mother. I saw the tears and the fright in her eyes.

When they sentenced me five months later, the judge said he had a lingering doubt that I did it so took me off death row. He actually said the words “This case will haunt me forever”. I got 25 years for murder and 21 for kidnapping and they were to run straight after each other – meaning I would be 81 before I could even be considered for parole. It was a death sentence, only this time I wouldn’t be lying on a gurney having a lethal injection.

I went back to jail, back among the worst of the worst.

Then, in 2001, a new law came in regarding the importance of DNA. We fought really hard to get Kim’s underwear re-tested and the judge granted it.

Again, mine didn’t match and God bless the girl in the lab because she decided to run it through the DNA database.

It came back with a match – Kenneth Phillips, who was currently serving 10 years for the sexual assault of a seven-year-old girl. My attorney went to see him. He said that at the time of the murder, he was on parole at his mom’s house, which was right behind the bar where Kim worked.

Kenneth had had a hard life, he’d grew up with violence and was now an alcoholic. He said he had blackouts but remembered waking up the day after the murder covered in blood. All of this was recorded.

I didn’t know any of this until my attorney called me up. He said “How are you Ray?” and I was like “Oh fine, just another day in paradise”. Then he said “What are you hungry for?”, I replied “Whatever they have in the chow hall, probably reconstituted turkey”.

“Nah,” he said. “What about steak? Seafood? Mexican? A nice cold beer? Guess what buddy, the judges are cutting your papers as we speak. You’re going home today”.

Four hours later, I was walking out of that jail, constantly looking over my shoulder thinking “What are they up to now?”.

I was the 100th person to be exonerated from death row so there was a lot of press outside. A reporter asked me “Mr Krone, given your faith in God, how do you justify Him leaving you in there for a decade?”.

Well, how do you answer such a soul-searching question like that? I just thought for a minute and replied “Well, maybe it’s not about those 10 years but what I do with the next 10”. Now, I didn’t go to my high school guidance counsellor and say “I want to be a motivational speaker and justice campaigner, can you sort it so that I go to prison for 10 years please?” but perhaps everything happens for a reason. I’d like people to take strength from my story. We will all have trials and tribulations in our lives but I hope my story helps people become survivors, not victims. We must all persevere and fight for change. The good people must stick together to fight against the world’s ills.

The first thing I did on my release was go to the store to get some proper food. But it was overwhelming, there was like 10 different flavours of ice tea and I didn’t know how to work the microwave to heat up my burrito. They gave me a cell phone and I had no idea what to do with it – I had 27 voicemails and was like “What’s this all about then?”.

I had to laugh at how dumb I was being. I couldn’t sleep on a normal bed at first because it was too soft, it felt like I was at sea so I slept on the floor. And when I was walking down the sidewalk, I’d always stay really close to the kerb. Then one day it clicked that I was doing this because if you got within five feet of the fence in jail, they’d shoot you. When I realised this, I ran over to that fence and jumped up and down on it like a monkey.

To this day, I still think about Kim. She was a nice girl and I remember her mother coming up to me and saying “Mr Krone, I am so sorry. I just believed what they told me”. I hugged her and said “Your apology is accepted and can I please express my condolences on your loss” – that was the first time I’d had the chance to do that.

All I would say about all this is that you have to keep going and question things when you see something you don’t agree on. People and the system are essentially good but there are always a few rotten apples. I try not to be bitter though, and speaking about it is like therapy to me.

But what I want people to remember is that all evil things come to an end eventually."

* As told to Elizabeth Joyce during Ray’s visit to University of Birmingham

* Ray Krone, now 56, is a campaigner against the death penalty and an ambassador for the Innocence Project. Upon his release, Mr Krone received an apology from the prosecutor and the usual exit payment of $50. He later sued the City of Phoenix for compensation and received a settlement, believed to be around $4 million."