Ron Keine, an innocent man who was sentenced to death in New Mexico because of bad cops and perjured testimony, won’t have to return to the state to testify against the bill to reinstate capital punishment.
Keine, an active Republican, stood ready to travel to New Mexico to try to reason with Republican legislators who want to revive the death penalty. Now he can save the airfare and stay at his home in suburban Detroit.
Every legislator knows that the surest bet in this year’s session is that the death penalty bill will die.
The proposal, House Bill 72, was scheduled to be heard on a recent Saturday, when a big crowd would have turned out. But the sponsor postponed the hearing, delaying the inevitable. As soon as the death penalty bill is called, majority Democrats will kill it.
That’s the wise decision. New Mexico is broke, barely able to provide money for ordinary jury trials.
Death penalty cases are the most expensive part of the judicial system. And states with capital punishment run the very real risk of executing innocent people unless they can provide an adequate defense fund.
Even murder cases that seem clear-cut can result in wrongful convictions. Keine knows this all too well.
He and three of his buddies were members of a motorcycle gang in the 1970s. They became convenient targets for lazy investigators and prosecutors who wanted to solve the high-profile murder of a university student in Bernalillo County. Those in power cut corners to get the convictions. And they were as wrong as they could be.
Keine and the other three defendants landed on death row. The state had to free them after 17 months when its case, built on lies, was exposed by a Detroit News investigation. Keine, 69, is the only one of the four who’s still alive, a flesh-and-blood reminder of the danger in believing that every criminal investigation is done by the book.
Keine’s wrongful conviction was one of many that caused me to oppose the death penalty. But there was a time, after a friend of mine, Ray Garcia, was murdered by a robber, that I wanted to see a death sentence carried out.
Ray, 26, was working the graveyard shift at the front desk of a hotel in Colorado. A female co-worker had needed the night off, so Ray filled in for her. He did favors for people all the time.
On that night in 1988, a gunman robbed the hotel. He forced Ray and the hotel’s unarmed security guard onto the floor, then shot them in the head execution-style. Ray died instantly. Against all odds, the guard survived and later identified the killer. It was a crime that shocked a city, and it met every standard for a death penalty case.
Instead, the district attorney made a deal with the shooter, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in return for a life sentence.
Later, the man who killed Ray was charged with two more murders, both committed before the one at the hotel. The killer received the death penalty for one of them.
Ray’s parents felt no better when the killer went to death row. Nothing would bring back their son. And the death sentence meant the killer’s appeals would drag on.
Years rolled by, and his death sentence was overturned. He’s serving two terms of life with the possibility of parole and one sentence of life without parole. The killer, Ronald Lee White, now 61, contracted hepatitis and is so shriveled that he no longer looks evil. He will die in prison.
Still, he’s already outlived Ray by 29 years. Along with political posturing, the reason there’s a call for the death penalty in New Mexico is because of criminals like White.
But the best evidence against the death penalty is Ron Keine. He and 155 other innocent people have walked off death rows since 1963, all of them grateful that truth finally set them free. Nobody knows how many other innocents still sit in prison or have been executed.
In New Mexico, where money is scarce, the chances of errors in death penalty cases would be greater than most places. The demise of the death penalty bill will be the best outcome for a system that’s supposed to provide justice for all.
Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or email@example.com.