Monday, 4 November 2013

Wrongful Convictions in the United States of America: The Case of Ray Krone

by Miss Sarah Lucy Cooper, Senior Lecturer in Law, Birmingham City University and Fellow of the Arizona Justice Project  

As of October, 2013, 311 people have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit by post-conviction DNA testing in America. 18 of those people had been sentenced to death before DNA exonerated them, and on average, each exoneree, served over 13 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. As the number of exonerees has steadily grew since the late 1980s, common causes of wrongful convictions have been identified.

The case of Ray Krone (Sarah is pictured to the right with Ray) America’s one-hundredth DNA exoneree, showcases a number of them. The naked body of Kim Ancona was found on the morning of December 29, 1991, on the floor of the men’s restroom at the bar she worked at in Phoenix, Arizona. She had been fatally stabbed, and had what appeared to be a bite-mark on her left breast.

Two suspects emerged early on in the police’s investigation: Ray Krone – a United States postal worker and patron of the bar where Ancona worked -- and an unknown Indian male. Friends and colleagues reported Ancona and Krone were romantically involved and that on the night of her death she had told a friend “Ray” was going to help her close the bar. Others told police there had been problems with American Indian males in the area. A note suspiciously dropped at the crime scene the night after the murder also described an “Indian” as a potential suspect.

Police visited Krone and observed he had crooked teeth. They asked him to bite into a Styrofoam plate, purchased from a convenience store, so that a cast of his teeth could be made and compared with the bite-mark on Ancona’s breast. Subsequently, the state criminologist reported Krone’s dentition was “consistent with” the bite-mark on Ancona. Soon-after, Krone was charged with Ancona’s murder. Until that moment, Krone had a clean criminal record and proud military past. The media dubbed him the “Snaggletooth Killer.”

The bite-mark was the focal point of the prosecution’s case against Krone at his trial in 1992. The state presented a renowned expert in forensic odontology, who testified that Krone’s dentition “matched” the bite-mark on Ancona, and who presented a videotape to demonstrate the “match.” The state also presented evidence that Krone and Ancona were romantically linked. Krone steadfastly denied he had killed Ancona, and that they were romantically involved or that he helped her close the bar on the night of her murder. His story remained the same – he had been at home watching TV then sleeping on that night. His defense, however, struggled to overcome the state expert’s bite-mark “match,” due to a lack of resources and availability of alternative scientific opinion from a comparable expert.

Krone’s defence lawyer had just a few thousand dollars to run the entire case, which was a mere fraction of what the state paid for its expert’s opinion alone. In 1991, DNA tests were not conclusive enough to include or exclude Krone as the killer. Plus, lots of the forensic evidence collected from the crime scene, such as fingerprints that could not be linked to Krone, never made it to the forefront of the trial. Krone was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. In 1995, his conviction and sentence were overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court because the expert’s videotape had not been disclosed to the defense until the eve of trial. Krone was re-tried in 1996.

The state’s case was essentially the same, but the defense presented a far more robust case. This time, four nationally-recognized experts rebutted the state’s theory that Krone’s dentition “matched” the bite-mark on Ancona. In addition, the hair evidence now pointed away from Krone. Seventeen hairs had been found on Ancona’s body and none of them matched Krone. Crucially, DNA testing now established blood found on the inside pocket flap of Ancona’s jeans belonged to someone with a genotype different from both Krone and Ancona. Research indicated that the reported genotype was popular in the American Indian population. A poly-marker test also revealed a genetic profile found at the crime scene did not belong to Krone or Ancona. Still, despite all of this fresh evidence in Krone’s favour, he was convicted again.

This time, however, due to the lingering doubts of the trial judge, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2001, Krone’s defense requested DNA testing on biological material present on Ancona’s bra, jeans and tank top. One year later, the results came back. None of the biological material on the items matched Krone’s DNA. Several of the items did, however, contain DNA that matched a man named Kenneth Phillips, who was on the FBI database and had an extensive criminal record. He was also an Indian.

Krone’s legal team interviewed Phillips at the Arizona prison where he was incarcerated. Within hours, they had elicited from Phillips what appeared to be admissions of guilt. Phillips reported that he had woken the morning after the murder with blood on his jeans and shoes, and that when he saw news reports on television he hoped he hadn’t committed the crime. Based on the DNA testing results and Phillips’ admissions, Krone walked free on April 8, 2002. Shortly after, additional testing officially exonerated him. The blood found on the victim’s jeans and panties matched Phillips, as did multiple fingerprints lifted from the crime scene. Notably, Phillips did not have a unusual dentition.

The Snaggletooth Killer was a myth. Krone’s case showcases a number of popular causes of wrongful convictions, including faulty and/or invalidated forensic evidence, target fixation, evidence suppression, and disparate resources. There are many more, however. Many wrongful convictions can be attributed to erroneous eyewitness identifications, false confessions, snitches, misconduct, and bad lawyering too. Krone was lucky. DNA evidence was eventually available to exonerate him. However, DNA is only available in around 5% of cases. Although DNA cases are certainly not easy to resolve, the other 95% of cases, even if they display a combination of the hallmarks of wrongful convictions, are almost impossibly difficult. Inmates in this bracket of cases are not alone, though.

Across the United States tens of innocence and justice projects take these cases and work relentlessly towards a fair conclusion. They also contribute to criminal justice reform and education. These projects are a mix of non-profit organizations, law school clinics, private bodies and other set-ups, and volunteer lawyers, academics and students from multiple disciplines are often the driving force behind them.

For students in particular, these projects present a unique opportunity to put theory in to practice and develop an ethic for pro bono work. I have been a pro bono Academic Fellow at the Arizona Justice Project since 2010 and can vouch for the fact that every contribution, no matter how small, counts. I have known students to unravel faulty forensic testimony, unearth a pivotal, once-thought missing document, track down key witnesses and build a rapport with inmates a lawyer could only dream of. So, get involved. You might just do the impossible.