A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences released this week shows that over 4 percent of people sentenced to death are innocent, making it all but certain that innocent people have been executed in the last three decades. I could have been one of those people. I was wrongfully sentenced to death and am only alive because the real killer had a religious epiphany and confessed to his pastor shortly before my scheduled execution.
I am a lifelong conservative. I am the past Chairman of the Clinton Township, Michigan Republican Club, was co-chair of Taxfighter and sat on the board of the Macomb County, Michigan Taxpayers Association for over 20 years.
Today, I work with Witness to Innocence to put an end to the death penalty. I also stand with fellow conservatives like Dr. Ron Paul and Jay Sekulow who support Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty’s goal of bringing together conservatives to reexamine the system of capital punishment.
In 1974, I was wrongly convicted, along with three of my friends, of murdering and sexually mutilating a University of New Mexico student and sentenced to death. The state did not present a weapon or any forensic evidence at my trial. Instead, the prosecution’s case rested entirely on a poorly administered lie detector test and the supposed eyewitness testimony of a motel maid.
Months after my conviction, the prosecution’s case began to unravel. The star witness admitted that her testimony was a lie that was fabricated by the prosecutor. The Detroit News broke the story, which prompted a new hearing and should have led to my release, but the judge refused to grant me a new trial. I was finally exonerated and released when the real killer came forward and confessed.
Widespread corruption and abuse of power almost led to my execution. The murder weapon, which was nowhere to be found at my trial, was eventually discovered inside the local sheriff’s safe along with paperwork showing that the crime lab found it to be the actual murder weapon. Evidence revealed that the weapon was hidden from the defense, and a prosecutor and detectives coerced the main witness to lie at my trial. This far-reaching malfeasance prompted the disbarment of the assistant prosecutor and the termination of three detectives.
I came within nine days of being sent to the gas chamber. I even remember the assistant warden walking by my cell to ask what I wanted for my last meal. I can tell you firsthand that the death penalty runs an inherent and undeniable risk of killing innocent people. In fact, I am one of over 140 individuals who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. As a pro-life conservative, I just can’t support a government program that carries this liability.
Capital punishment is far more expensive than life-without-parole. A death penalty case costs an average of 3.2 million dollars whereas it would cost an average of 500 thousand to incarcerate a murderer for life. These high costs have pushed municipalities to the point of bankruptcy, causing tax increases. Wasteful government programs clearly do not fit within the philosophy of fiscal conservatism.
Can you imagine the horrendous indignity of knowing that your tax dollars are being used to go against God’s teaching (Thou shall not kill) and many times used to murder innocent people in our nation’s execution chambers? The two most memorable instances that come to mind are those of Charles Hudspeth and William Marion. In each of these unrelated cases the murder victim was found to be alive and well but only after the executions of these innocent men.
There was a time when I had faith in the criminal justice system, but today, I know it is broken. It failed me, and it failed my three friends, one of which took his own life upon release because of the effects of our experience. The corruption and abuse I witnessed in the criminal justice system should serve as a warning that should not be taken lightly. Just like most of the other 140 death row exonerees, I was not saved by the criminal justice system or the appeals process. It utterly failed me. I was exonerated either by divine intervention, or sheer luck, that drove the real killer to admit to the crime.
Ron Keine is Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence. Ron’s powerful prose on the death penalty has appeared in both scholarly and literary arts publications, and he was recently honored by the Texas House of Representatives.