Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Field Dispatch: Ron Keine Speaks in Louisville on the Death Penalty

Guest Post by Ben Carmack

A reading from the Holy Gospel of Saint Matthew:

 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...I was in prison, and ye came unto me...Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee...in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

LOUISVILLE, Ky -- Mr. Ron Keine, of the group Witness to Innocence, an advocacy group dedicated to telling the stories of exonerated death row inmates in the United States, related his experience as an innocent death row inmate in New Mexico at the University of Louisville on Monday, January 31, making common cause with Kentuckians Against the Death Penalty, Students for Peace and Justice, and the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Keine grew up in Michigan, and attended university in Cleveland, where he studied psychology. In his early twenties, he and "Doc," a buddy from back home, left their lives behind and went on a motorcycle trip around the U.S., Canada and Mexico. For support, they worked odd jobs in odd towns and stayed in hippie communes. They had long hair, beards, a zest for adventure and didn't care too much for the government or established authorities of any sort.

Later on, they moved to California and joined a motorcycle gang. They planned a road trip from California to Michigan and set out sometime in 1974 in a borrowed van with bread, bologna and five cases of beer on board. The "essentials," as he said, of a good road trip.

As the rowdy crew crossed Oklahoma, cops pulled them over and charged them with armed robbery of a nearby gas station. At their arraignment, the judge, when he heard the name of the gas station alleged to have been robbed, said, "Didn't that place burn down years ago?" The judge, after "consulting" with the prosecutor, released Keine and his friends. After that, the cops continued to hold the gang, changing their tune, now charging them with the murder of a college student in Albuquerque, NM.

Keine and his friends were extradited to New Mexico. The judge was unfriendly and dismissive to the men, as was the prosecutor, the jury and their own court appointed public defender (they didn't have the money to hire a private lawyer). Surrounded by people who presumed their guilt based upon their appearance, their involvement in motorcycle gangs and rowdy behavior, the men were convicted on the basis of testimony from a hooker and two jail snitches, none of whom had ever seen the men or been seen by them and could have had no possible knowledge of their whereabouts.

When Keine asked the judge if he could testify as to his guilt or innocence, the judge flatly refused. Keine was threatened with gagging if he continued to speak "out of order." As Mr. Keine said during his speech, "A lot of the Constitutional rights you are afforded don't really work in the real world." In a courtroom, your ability to defend yourself is dependent on the quality of the representation you can afford.

Keine and his friends spent the best years of their lives on death row in New Mexico for a crime they did not commit. Mr. Keine recalled being beaten by sadistic guards. The men were denied regular physical exercise.

Keine's friend "Doc," had a girlfriend in California who wrote to a newspaperman in Detroit to come and investigate the case. The reporter was intimidated by two detectives who threatened to put him on death row if he continued to look into the case. The case file was missing important papers and details. Important documents had been blacked out.

The case was finally blown open when a cop "found Jesus" and confessed to a pastor in South Carolina that he had really murdered the college student "in a drug deal gone bad." The sheriff, who was with him, was angry with him when he shot the college student, because the sheriff was up for re-election. The sheriff instructed his deputies to pin the murder on somebody else to save his own face.

The prostitute who testified against them had been taught how to show extreme emotion, including putting onions in her pockets, touching the onions with her fingers and then putting her fingers around her eyes to induce false tears. The police had offered to release her pimp, then in prison, if she agreed to testify against Ron Keine and his motorcycle gang. The jail snitches too, had been offered release or shortened jail time if they agreed to testify against men they had never seen. Incidentally, the detectives involved in the case kept none of their promises in these regards.

When Mr. Keine was finally released from prison, he had no money, possessions or anywhere else to go. This is the period, he said, in the life of an ex-prisoner that is most dangerous. The temptation is then strong to engage in selling drugs, steal or participate in other illegal behavior to get by. He was unable to get a job in his hometown and started his own business, selling rock salt door to door. He lived in an abandoned Chevy for a while, he said. Many ex-cons commit suicide, get addicted to drugs and/or booze and otherwise destroy their lives.

 Mr. Keine and the group Witness to Innocence serve to tell the stories of innocent men on death row and to provide help for such men as they adjust to life after prison.

Now for some opinion: it is very possible that Mr. Keine's story, in some respects, is exaggerated or otherwise untrue. However, the fact that he and his friends were released from death row proves that he was in fact innocent of the crime he was charged with. If only half of the things he said were true, our criminal justice system in the U.S. has some deep problems.

What are the answers? There are no easy answers. I think any attempted fix must begin with the Gospel: if Jesus Christ is Lord of the world, and if all civil authority must ultimately answer to Him, civil authority is bound to act with charity and mercy toward fellow citizens, irrespective of their appearance, for the Lord "is no respecter of persons, but in every nation, him that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable unto Him." (Acts 10:34-35) I think Mr. Keine would agree with me. He is a Catholic convert, which is probably a good thing, since the Vatican has had some very good and balanced things to say about the death penalty in recent decades.

While civil authority is bound to act according to law, in light of the Gospel, great mercy can and should be shown when desirable. A jury, if they so choose, should be able to exonerate a man for any reason.

Prisons, by nature, assume that any crime committed is a crime against "society," which really means "the State." Yet the crimes affect individual people and families, very rarely does the State suffer great crimes. More often, the State engages in crimes of its own. It is time to overhaul our entire system of punishment and consider a system based upon restitution, repayment and restoration as justice. Such a sytem would follow common law precedents, rather than political decrees.

Further, the power of the police should be significantly reduced. A number of laws creating novel "crimes" should be repealed. Acts like the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act should also be repealed. All prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses should be released. All "terrorist" suspects who don't stand trial within a reasonable period of time following their capture on the battlefield should be released.

 These actions are all collective and political, requiring activism, which can be expensive, unproductive and time-consuming. What can be done on a smaller scale?

We can cultivate, in our own lives, a deep understanding of God's mercy toward all men, displayed through His Son on the Cross. Contemplate the enormity of the Gospel that declares those who are guilty "not guilty." Consider what you and your friends can do to comfort those in prison, even those who are guilty, as our Lord commanded in His Gospel. Be merciful and long-suffering, take needy people into your home, help out your neighbors who need help and don't be afraid of enduring suffering for well doing.

This is the will of God. By doing these things we justify our faith, and we show that the Word of God, His own Son, is in us.

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Comments always welcome, pro and con.

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