Ray Krone: Decade on death row

It’s my please to introduce you to Ray Krone, a man who served ten long years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Ray was … well, I think I’ll sit back and post Ray’s tale as he told it to me. The floor is yours, my friend.

Ray Krone

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend Cheryl read a novel by Polly Iyer about a man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder, released, and then framed for a series of murders. As with all good fiction, there were elements of fact in this story. Polly’s description of the impact of wrongful convictions struck a chord with Cheryl, and she sent Polly an email saying so. That email started an exchange that led to me posting on this blog today.

My story isn’t much of a mystery, but it has twists and turns that wouldn’t make it past a fiction editor’s red pencil. Lee thought that it might be of interest to you, so here goes. I’m not a professional writer but I hope that I’ll be able to provide some useful insights into the ripples that result from sloppy police work, ineffective defense counsel, and overzealous prosecutors.

I won’t go into details about my life prior to my arrest and wrongful conviction. It was unremarkable as most lives are, except to the people who live them. I sang in the church choir, was a Boy Scout, and played team sports throughout my school years. I was never in any trouble, never even had detention in school. I grew up in a small town, joined the Air Force, and following my Honorable Discharge remained in Phoenix, AZ, my last duty station. I got a job with the United States Postal Service as a letter carrier.

Ray before his arrest for a crime he didn’t commit

At 35, I was single and living the good life. My salary allowed me to buy my own home and have lots of big boy toys—sand rail, Corvette, swimming pool. I had a loving family back in PA, and loyal friends all over the country. Little did I know that I was about to find out just how important those people were.

I’d always enjoyed team sports, and still do. A bar in my neighborhood sponsored volleyball and dart teams, and I played on both. On December 29, 1991, the owner found his night manager, Kim Ancona, on the men’s room floor. She’d been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death. A co-worker told police detectives Kim had said someone named Ray was going to help her close up that night. I had a casual acquaintance with this woman, and knew her only as a bartender and occasional dart player. She was living with a man and as far as I was concerned, that was as good as married and made her off-limits.

Detectives found my name and phone number in her address book and came to see me. It’s important to note at this point that my name and phone number were not in my handwriting or in Kim’s. How they got there remains a mystery to this day. I was questioned by the Phoenix Police, and cooperated—until I realized they were trying to pin this murder on me.  The legal wrangling is public record—you can Google my name and read countless stories about my case.

Being the one hundredth person to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die, only to be found factually innocent after spending years on Death Row and in prison, put me on the radar of a society that was beginning to question the value of capital punishment. My conviction was based solely on bite mark evidence. Because I refused to show remorse for a crime I didn’t commit, I was sentenced to death. After almost three years on Death Row, I was granted a new trial. I was again convicted, and sentenced to 23 years for the kidnapping, and 25 years to life for the murder. Only a random series of events would free me. Court-ordered DNA would finally free me and identify the real killer. I spent a total of ten years, three months and eight days in prison for something I didn’t do. I was 35 when arrested and 45 when I was exonerated.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

The life events that other people take for granted were stolen from me, and no amount of money, sympathy or accolades will ever give me a chance to experience them. They are gone forever. Am I bitter? I try not to be—the family and friends who stood by me have helped me adjust and appreciate what I do have. I try not to focus on what I’ve been denied in this life, but what I’ve been given. I’ve learned the hardest way possible the true meaning of “you find out who your friends are.” Despite the love and support of friends and family, I still have moments when I feel rage at what happened to me, even after more than ten years of freedom.

Billboard on I-83 in Harrisburg, Pa.

There have been millions of words written and hundreds of television shows about the impact on men and women who were sentenced to die for a crime they didn’t commit. There are well-documented studies about innocent men and women who were executed in the name of justice. There are other victims of a legal system that penalizes the poor and rewards prosecutors for conviction rates without examining the accuracy of those convictions.  Not just the families of the wrongfully convicted, who often lose what little they have in the defense of their loved ones, but the families of the original victim, the new victims created by the guilty party who remains free, their families, the jurors who are denied access to all of the evidence in a case. The list goes on and on—I misspoke when I called it a ripple—it’s a tsunami, wreaking havoc and destruction, and in many cases, is preventable.

I’m part of a nationally-known group called Witness to Innocence. We have only one membership requirement, but it’s a tough one. You must have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for a crime which you did not commit. Although many of us are unable to speak publicly about what happened to us, many others find it therapeutic to do so. We have spoken in front of groups ranging from high school students to Congress to the United Nations. We share our experiences at law schools, forensics conventions and gatherings of legal professionals—anywhere that telling our stories will help provide insight, and hopefully inspiration.

The Witness to Innocence photo above is of only some of the members. Left to right: Ray Krone, Albert Burrell, Kirk Bloodsworth, Gary Drinkard, Randy Steidl, Ron Keine, Delbert Tibbs and Derek Jamison. Each of these men (and our one female member, Sabrina Porter) have stories that defy belief, as do all of the members.

I’m honored to have been invited to address the readers of this blog. For more information about Witness to Innocence, stories of exoneration or speaker’s schedules, please visit www.witnesstoinnocence.org


I’d like to say thanks to Ray for sharing his story with us here on The Graveyard Shift. As a former police detective who witnessed an execution via electric chair, well, I’m at a loss for words when I think of the possibility that an innocent person could die such a violent death at the hand of the government. Supposedly, the death penalty is carried out in the name of justice. I wonder, though, how many innocent people have been put to death based on human error? One is far too many, right?

Perhaps, though, Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia—the man who executed the serial killer I saw put to death—best put it into perspective when he said, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.”

Givens, after executing 62 people, now strongly opposes the death penalty.


Bite-mark Evidence. Just Say NO!

Not so long ago, within the past few years, the Presidents  Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) announced that forensic bite-mark evidence is not scientifically valid, nor is it likely to ever be validated. In other words, bite-mark evidence is simply more junk science and the reasons are many. for example, skin may slip and move during decomposition, skin and flesh are not stable material—may not hold a precise pattern, etc. Patterns and injuries are also open to human interpretation, which is sometimes unreliable as it’s based on opinion, not fact.

Writers should not use bite-mark evidence in their stories, UNLESS they’re using it to create tension by falsely arresting and/or convicting a potentially innocent character.


 

Attention!

I am pleased to announce that Ray Krone will present his story at the 2020 Writers’ Police Academy/MurderCon. Ray will discuss his case, the now-known-to-be-faulty bite-mark evidence that was used to convict him and others, exonerations through DNA, and what it was like to spend 10 years serving time on on death row, waiting to be put to death.

Ray’s is a story filled with compelling detail and emotion. It’s life-changing. It’s the precise kind of information writers need to add those extra and intricate bits of information to their tales.

Registration for this one of kind experience opens in February, 2020. Event details are coming very soon! Believe me, the workshops are amazing.

Space is limited so please register early!

www.writerspoliceacademy.com

Lynching laws across the country vary, but the one thing they all have in common is that most people believe the crime and its legal definition absolutely must involve a tree and a rope.

So here’s a shocker—contrary to popular belief, one does not need a rope to commit a lynching, nor does one need a tree or other sturdy platform from which to hang the rope. And, speaking of hanging, it’s not always necessary to “string-up” a human being to commit a lynching.

First, before explaining the laws, let’s explore a tiny bit of history regarding lynchings by rope and tree. Please bear with me because events like the following helped set the stage for modern lynching laws.

In Virginia, between 1880 and 1926, over 90 people—mostly African Americans—were lynched. The last lynching occurred in Wytheville, a small town situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Wytheville, you may remember, is the town where a man named Warren Taylor entered the post office pushing a wheelchair he said contained explosives. Taylor then took hostages and fired a few wild shots before police convinced him to surrender. The town was also the site of a large polio outbreak in the 1950’s. Seventeen people died and nearly two-hundred were hospitalized. Since there was no hospital in Wytheville, ambulances and even hearses from local funeral homes were used to transport the sick 80 miles to a hospital in Roanoke. Black townspeople, however, were denied care at the Roanoke hospital and were forced to travel to Richmond, some 300 miles further.

My only connection to Wytheville was becoming friends with a trooper from there during our time training at the Virginia State Police academy. He, too, was a canine handler and our two dogs quickly became best buddies.

But back to the Wytheville lynching. A black man named Raymond Bird was accused of having sex by force with a 19-year-old white woman, Minnie Grubb, the daughter of his employer.

Actually, Byrd and his quite willing white lover were having an affair (Bird was married), and she became pregnant with his child. Well, her parents were appalled at the notion and wanted their daughter to say Bird raped her. Long story short, she refused but others came forward to back the rape claim and Byrd was promptly arrested and jailed.

While sleeping in his jail cell, an angry mob of masked men stormed the jail, removed Bird and shot him. Then they tied him to a truck and dragged his body for nearly ten miles where they left him hanging from a tree. A local farmer was the only person charged and tried for the lynching. He was acquitted after a ten minute deliberation by the jury.

In 1928, Virginia Governor Harry Byrd, Jr. signed the first the Anti Lynching Law in the Commonwealth.

But not all lynchings/hangings were of African Americans. For example, in 1900, two men, Brandt O’Grady and Walter Cotton, were wanted for a string of brutal killings. O’Grady was white and Cotton was black. The two men, after escaping a Portsmouth jail, also killed Justice of the Peace John Saunders and Deputy Sheriff Joseph Welton who were part of the team of men out searching for the murderers. The two lawmen and a citizen tracked O’Grady and Cotton to a cabin near the North Carolina state line. Deputy Walton entered first and was immediately shot and killed. Saunders turned to retreat and was shot in the back of the head. The citizen managed to get away to seek help.

O’Grady and Cotton were eventually captured and subsequently held in the county jail. Citizens were angry over the murders of their local lawmen, and threats of lynchings grew louder by the day. So the Virginia State Militia was dispatched to protect the prisoners. However, the protection detail was withdrawn by order of the governor and, while awaiting trial, a group of those angry citizens stormed the jail and took the two men out to the front lawn of the courthouse where they hanged Cotton, the black man, from a cherry tree.

The mob was comprised of both blacks and whites, and the moment Cotton was put to his death the black citizens demanded equal justice for O’Grady. So they went back inside to pull O’Grady from his cell and then hung him next to his conspirator.

The cherry tree was eventually cut down sometime in the mid to late 1970s. Several county employees and townspeople took pieces of it as souvenirs. The old jail was later demolished and replaced by a newer facility.

Okay, with that bit of history under our belts, let’s explore lynching laws.

Of course, those laws do indeed include include murder by hanging, which is a topic of interest to many writers. But lynching laws are often broader in scope and don’t, as I stated earlier, necessarily include a rope and tree. For example, in Virginia (I often use Va. as my “go-to” since I’m most familiar with the laws there), the definition of the crime of lynching is:

§ 18.2-39. “Lynching” defined.

Any act of violence by a mob upon the body of any person, which shall result in the death of such person, shall constitute a “lynching.”

§ 18.2-40. Lynching deemed murder.

Every lynching shall be deemed murder. Any and every person composing a mob and any and every accessory thereto, by which any person is lynched, shall be guilty of murder, and upon conviction, shall be punished as provided in Article 1 (§ 18.2-30 et seq.) of this chapter.

§ 18.2-43. Apprehension and prosecution of participants in lynching.

The attorney for the Commonwealth of any county or city in which a lynching may occur shall promptly and diligently endeavor to ascertain the identity of the persons who in any way participated therein, or who composed the mob which perpetrated the same, and have them apprehended, and shall promptly proceed with the prosecution of any and all persons so found; and to the end that such offenders may not escape proper punishment, such attorney for the Commonwealth may be assisted in all such endeavors and prosecutions by the Attorney General, or other prosecutors designated by the Governor for the purpose; and the Governor may have full authority to spend such sums as he may deem necessary for the purpose of seeking out the identity, and apprehending the members of such mob.

 

California omits “lynching” from law

Until 2015, California’s Lynching Law (California Penal Code 405a) defined “lynching” as the crime of removing someone from the lawful custody of a peace officer by means of a riot.

What constitutes a riot per this section of California law?

  • Use force or violence;
  • Disturb the public peace; or
  • Threaten to use force or violence with immediate power to execute the threat.

Therefore, (per California law) – Lynching: “to take someone from lawful police custody by means of a riot means to engage in the use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or threatening to use force or violence with the immediate power to do so in order to free someone from the custody of a law enforcement agent.”

However, in 2015, then California Gov. Brown signed legislation removing the word “lynching” from the law after a member of the Black Lives Matter group was arrested for interfering with the arrest of a fellow activist during a rally against police brutality. Her arrest was for the crime of Lynching and had nothing to do ropes or trees or even murder.

Still, while having other meanings and legal implications, the term “lynching” is, and will likely always be most commonly associated with the brutal hangings of African Americans, especially those that occurred in the south. According to numbers from the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4,000 African Americans were lynched by racist mobs between 1877 and 1950.


Strange Fruit

Here’s Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a song that was closely aligned with the anti-lynching and American Civil rights movements. The song is definitely chilling and quite visual. It was originally written as a poem by Abel Metropol.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

scent of magnolia

sweet and fresh

then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

 

Here is a fruit

for the crows to pluck

for the rain to gather

for the wind to suck

for the sun to rot

for the tree to drop.

Here is a strange

and bitter crop.


*Please, this is not an article about race or politics. Please do not make it so. The information contained in this post is strictly that, information. It’s not an op ed piece nor is  it an invitation to argue personal views about race, police, politics, gun control, the NRA, school shootings, etc. I’ve grown weary of the constant bickering so often seen on social media. But I do wholeheartedly welcome questions and comments.