Death Road

Ray Krone is nervous about spending much time in Arizona. He admits he might be a bit paranoid, but he's concerned that when he comes back for visits, cops and prosecutors might follow him and try to pin some sort of trumped-up charges on him.

But if anyone has a right to fear unjust prosecution, it's Ray Krone.

"They proved they were willing to do absolutely anything to send a totally innocent man to death row," Krone says of the Maricopa County prosecutors who used threads of dubious evidence to get him wrongly convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of a Phoenix bartender. "So I'm not sure what they're capable of trying.

"But after you sit in front of a judge and have him condemn you to death, there's not much else that frightens you. I'm not going to let them rule my life anymore."

So Krone returned this week from his home in Pennsylvania for his first speaking engagement, to ASU's Amnesty International chapter, one of dozens of speaking engagements he's made around the world.

His next return likely will be for the trial of one of the largest and most disturbing lawsuits ever brought against the Arizona legal system. Krone is suing for $100 million.

Until then, he'll keep traveling at the behest of the world's top peace and anti-death-penalty organizations. The speeches, he says, have earned him about $500 a month, enough to pay for living expenses while he lives in a converted garage apartment owned by his parents. He'll be receiving $250 for his Phoenix visit.

"I guess it's a combination of things that has led to me being asked to speak so much," he says. "It was a big deal because I was the 100th innocent person saved from death row. But my case is so outrageous I think it hits home with just about everybody. I'm living proof you can just be plucked off the street and sentenced to die."

On December 29, 1991, Phoenix police knocked on his door. A bartender at the bar he sometimes frequented had been murdered the night before.

He was taken in for questioning. He told the investigators he knew the bartender, Kim Ancona, but that they were only acquaintances.

Ancona had teeth marks on her body, the police told him. They said they were collecting bite marks from everyone they interviewed. Krone agreed to bite down on a piece of hard foam.

John Piakis, a Phoenix dentist who was just beginning to serve as the department's forensic dental expert, quickly decided Krone's bite mark was consistent with the bites on Ancona's body.

Without fingerprints, blood tests, DNA, hair samples or eyewitnesses, Krone was convicted and sentenced to die, primarily on the testimony of Piakis and another dental expert, Raymond Rawson.

Twelve years later, Krone's lawsuit alleges a litany of mistakes and scheming by investigators and prosecutors that kept Krone in jail until he was freed by DNA evidence and the alleged confession of the real killer last year.

For one, the lawsuit contends, investigators and prosecutors ignored or covered up evidence that led to the most likely killer, Kenneth Phillips.

Last year, Tom Streed, a forensic investigator working for Krone's family, paid a visit to Phillips in prison. After a little more than an hour of talking to Phillips, Streed says he had a confession.

"It's like they didn't want to find the real killer," Streed told me. "I go in there and all of a sudden, he's telling the story of how he woke up the next morning with blood on his hands. He said he turned on the television and saw the story about the body and said to himself, Oh my God, oh my God, I hope I didn't do that.'"

Phillips' handprints and hair were found in the rest room of the bar in which Ancona worked. And he lived just 600 yards from the bar. And witnesses described seeing a man fitting Phillips' description at the bar that night.

Amazingly, Phillips was arrested three weeks after Ancona's murder for a similar incident. While on intensive probation, Phillips broke into another woman's house and attacked her.

"What happened, I think, is that once they thought they had their guy, they just did everything they could to pound square pegs into round holes," Streed says.

Phillips is scheduled to go on trial for the murder and sexual assault of Kim Ancona on August 25 of this year.

Other accusations in Krone's lawsuit include:

Piakis, the Phoenix dental investigator, showed Krone's bite imprints to his mentor, Norman Sperber, a respected San Diego forensic odontologist. Sperber told Piakis that Krone's bite marks weren't consistent with the bite marks on the body.

But Piakis and prosecutors didn't tell anyone about Sperber's conclusions. Several years after the initial trial, while searching the country for the best forensic odontologists, Krone's attorneys showed the evidence to Sperber. Sperber remembered having seen the evidence years before, and he remembered telling Piakis that the evidence didn't point to Krone.

Since then, four other odontologists have agreed that Krone's bite is inconsistent with the bite marks on Ancona's body.

Streed says Rawson has been paid at least $50,000 by prosecutors for his testimony. Comparatively, the Krone family has paid an average of $6,000 for the research done by the five forensic odontologists who concluded that Krone wasn't the killer.

Carolyn and her husband, Jim, along with Krone's cousin, spent more than $250,000 of their own money to find the truth about their son's innocence.

"It's all we've done and thought about for the last 12 years," Carolyn says. "And none of it would have had to happen if the justice system in Arizona had done its job."

Krone's supporters believe county prosecutors are still trying to do anything they can to tie Krone to the murder. Streed says county prosecutors may have offered a deal to Phillips after Krone's release: If Phillips would implicate Krone as a co-conspirator in the murder, prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against Phillips.

Prosecutors deny any such deal was ever offered.

"Krone's case was dismissed with prejudice," says Bill FitzGerald of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. "We couldn't come back and charge him even if he came forward and said he committed the crime. It just doesn't make sense that we would do what they're alleging. I don't know where they're coming up with that."

FitzGerald said he could not discuss Krone's other allegations, except that "we will be going to court" to argue why prosecutors were justified in pursuing Krone for the murder.

As that happens, Ray Krone also surely will be asked to increase his role as an international spokesman about the problems of capital punishment.

"I certainly never dreamed of being some kind of motivational speaker," Krone says. "It's been frightening in its own way. But it's something I feel like I have to do. For obvious reasons, I have a pretty strong opinion on the topic."

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Robert Nelson