Making a difference

Imagine opening your front door one day to find two detectives walking up your driveway. A waitress at a local bar, who you know only by her first name, has been brutally raped and murdered, and someone’s mentioned you to the police. Before you know it, you’re downtown being interrogated about your relationship with her, giving blood samples and spending two hours in a dentist’s chair while he takes a cast of your teeth. Then they let you go, and you think it’s all over. Until they return to your house and arrest you for kidnap, rape and murder.

At your trial, the only real evidence against you is the testimony of an ‘expert’ witness, who claims your teeth exactly match the ones that made a bite mark on the victim’s body. It’s enough to convince the jury, and you’re found guilty. Then comes the sentencing phase. Your lawyer advises you to show remorse, but you can’t be sorry for something you know you didn’t do, and as a result, suddenly you’re on death row.

Four years later, you’re granted a new trial because of a legal technicality. This time you have a decent lawyer, and with his help you uncover new evidence; the DNA in the bite mark isn’t yours. You feel confident that the truth will come out – and yet the prosecutor, unwilling to admit his mistake, manages to explain it away and to the horror of your watching family, you’re found guilty a second time. The judge, however, has lingering doubts about your guilt… so he only sentences you to life imprisonment.

Another six years pass, and one day you get a call from your lawyer to say that a new DNA test has not only revealed that you weren’t the killer, but has uncovered the identity of the real murderer. The same day, you’re released from prison, but the closest you get to an apology from the police department is, ‘We’re really sorry about what happened to you… why didn’t you tell us the truth from the start?’

It probably sounds like I’m summarising the plot of a John Grisham novel (and doing a good job of spoiling it for everyone). But in reality this is the incredible true story of Ray Krone, who spoke yesterday at the London conference of human rights organisation LifeLines. Ray, who has the dubious honour of being the 100th former death row inmate exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, is clearly still angry about what happened, not only for himself but for his family. When asked if he felt any forgiveness for the people who locked him up, he said that he feels nothing but indifference; they’re not worth his time. He has a bigger goal – to take on the system that condemned him – and he’s been campaigning against the death penalty since his release in 2002.

Ray didn’t talk much about his time on death row. It’s not something he likes to remember, understandably. But the story he did tell, of his arrest, trial and eventual release, kept the conference spellbound for over an hour.

LifeLines was established in 1988 by Jan Arriens, who watched a documentary called Fourteen Days in May on TV, and was so moved by the story of Edward Earl Johnson, executed in Mississippi for a murder he didn’t commit, that he wrote to the three other prisoners interviewed in the programme. They all wrote back, and so LifeLines was born. The organisation’s goal is to provide friendship and support to those on death row in the US. Yesterday was its 25th anniversary conference, held at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London, and Ray Krone was the first speaker.

Ray Krone and Jan Arriens
Ray Krone and Jan Arriens

The second was Clive Stafford Smith, a well-known lawyer and LifeLines’ patron. Clive was Edward Earl Johnson’s lawyer, featured in Fourteen Days in May, and has worked tirelessly for most of his life, defending death row prisoners, and more recently inmates in Guantanamo Bay. (Some of these, incredibly, have been cleared for release for six years, and yet are still there.) This, not surprisingly, has made him some powerful enemies and he knows his name is on at least one list of undesirables, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Clive doesn’t look much like a lawyer. He turned up in jeans and a baggy jumper, and boasted at one point that he doesn’t own any suits. He’s also not very serious, which is a bit surprising given the life and death nature of his work. Someone asked him how he manages to stay so relaxed, and his answer was that there doesn’t seem much point in getting worked up about things. With charm, enthusiasm and humour, he told us about just a few of his experiences in the courtroom, including some of his tactics for winning a jury’s support (in his words: ‘It was so much fun!’).

Clive Stafford Smith and Ray Krone
Clive Stafford Smith and Ray Krone

It was a fascinating and sometimes emotional day. Some of the stories we heard from both Ray and Clive were shocking and would almost have been funny if they hadn’t been so serious. I know everyone has their own view about the death penalty and I’m not about to try and tell anyone what to think. But a system that’s got it wrong 144 times (44 more since Ray’s release) – that we know about – and has the potential to kill an innocent person, is surely cause for concern.

Once again I know this isn’t a particularly happy post; sorry about that. But I think there are a few positives to take from the stories we heard yesterday. Firstly, Ray’s view that sometimes we have to go through bad things to get to the good (although hopefully not everyone will have to spend ten years in prison to reach that point). Second, the fact that there are people in the world, like Clive, who are willing to risk everything to stand up for what they believe in. And finally, the thought that even the smallest action, like writing a letter, can make a huge difference to someone’s life. We don’t need to be campaigners or lawyers to do some good in the world, and I think that’s a pretty positive thing to remember.


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