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What do you say to someone who spent years on death row for a murder DNA evidence later proved he didn't commit?
It's a question that Utah legislators and law students were faced with last week when they met Ray Krone, an Arizona man who was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a 1991 Phoenix barroom slaying only to be exonerated and freed after years of staring down his potential execution.
"I think the big message is how, in my life, I made a mistake and believed in the justice system, naturally and rightfully so, after serving my country in the military and the Postal Service, and I found out the justice system does get it wrong," Krone told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview.
Krone is the 100th death row inmate freed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and Utah executed Gary Gilmore.
He was in Utah last week, meeting with more than a dozen legislators on Wednesday ahead of another attempt by death-penalty opponents to repeal Utah's law on executions in the upcoming legislative session. He also spoke to law students at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.
Last legislative session, a bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Senate but was blocked in the House. Marina Lowe, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said stories like Krone's, where the system got it wrong, were missing from the debate last year.
"Nobody really talked about it or that message didn't really rise to the surface that our criminal-justice system is made up of human beings who make mistakes, and what are the consequences of those mistakes when the punishment is so final," Lowe said. "I think Ray's story helps to fill that void in a really powerful way."
On the morning of Dec. 29, 1991, 36-year-old Kim Ancona was found stabbed to death in the restroom of the bar where she worked. She had told a friend Krone was going to help her close the bar the night before and investigators believed that bite marks on Ancona's neck matched Krone's teeth.
Krone claimed he was at home in bed at the time of the killing, but he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death based on that evidence. No DNA tests were performed or presented as evidence at his trial.
In 1996, Krone won a retrial and this time a judge sentenced him to life in prison, based on doubts about the bite-mark testimony. In 2002, DNA tests showed that blood and saliva found on the victim did not match Krone and instead belonged to another man, Kenneth Phillips, who was serving time for another sex crime at the time and had lived near the bar when Ancona was murdered. He later pleaded guilty to the slaying.
Krone said that, while it's unlikely that most Utahns will ever be wrongly accused, many will end up on juries and it is important for them to understand the system isn't flawless.
"I want the public to see there are actually two sides of the justice system. It's not simply that everyone has done something wrong or they wouldn't have been arrested," Krone said. "To ignore the fact that people are being exonerated and to ignore the fact that our justice system is getting it wrong, to ignore the fact that police and prosecutors can perjure themselves to ignore that fact puts us all at danger in our justice system if we are caught up in that."
But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, a proponent of the death penalty, said while Krone's story is compelling, it is telling that groups have to bring exonerated individuals in from other states. He doesn't believe defendants could be mistakenly condemned to death in Utah.
In Utah, he said, a jury has to unanimously impose the death sentence some states allow a majority of the 12 jurors to impose the death sentence which demands a high degree of proof and certainty. When Krone was sentenced to death in Arizona, the judge was allowed to impose the sentence after a conviction, a practice that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
"They're comparing apples and oranges. The death penalty in other states is not comparable to the death penalty in Utah," Ray said. "Our bar is the highest in the nation to get on death row. You've got to be a pretty evil person."
Utah has not had a documented case where a potentially innocent person was executed since the 1800s, he said.
"His story is a very tragic story and I see where he's coming from," Ray said. "But every time the opponents of the death penalty bring somebody in, they bring them from another state. When we talk about victims' families, we have a victim family [from Utah]."
Lowe said just because Utah doesn't have a documented case of a wrongful execution doesn't mean it couldn't happen. Nationally, studies have shown that the error rate is as high as one in 25.
"I think it's impossible to assume we've never made a mistake in Utah. Nationwide, we know this happens," she said. "We know there are lots of problems within the justice system, people [in Utah] who have been exonerated for charges less than the death penalty, so I think it's a stretch to say in this one area we'll never make a mistake."
In the past, Ray has proposed legislation to expand the death penalty to apply to crimes of sex trafficking in which a death occurs. In the coming session, he said, he plans to propose a bill that would automatically make it a capital offense for someone to intentionally kill a police officer, rather than leaving it to a prosecutor's discretion.
Ray said he has had a flood of support from police officers supporting the idea. And he has spent the summer preparing to once again fight legislation to repeal Utah's death penalty, in particular working with legislative budget analysts to try to put together data on how much it costs to execute someone versus keeping them in prison.
"I'm sure they'll file [the repeal bill] again, but I just don't see it going anywhere," he said.