By Ron Keine
I am a lifelong conservative Republican whose faith in the criminal justice system was shattered by my near-death experience with it. I came within nine days of being sent to the gas chamber for a crime I did not commit.
You could say I’m living proof of why people should not trust their government with the death penalty.
My nightmare started in 1974 when three friends and I were falsely accused of sexually mutilating and killing a student at the University of New Mexico. We were all sentenced to death in 1974.
The state had no proof — no weapon, no forensic evidence — just poorly run lie-detector tests on all four of us and an alleged witness. Even when that witness later recanted, the judge refused to grant us a new trial.
It was only after the real killer confessed that we were exonerated and that happened in the nick of time. My execution had been scheduled and the assistant warden had asked what I wanted for my last meal.
How could this happen?
This was an abuse of government power and it happens more often than you might think. In our case, the main witness had been coerced to lie at the trial. Also, the murder weapon — nowhere to be seen during the trial — was later found inside the local sheriff’s safe. It had been hidden from the defense and traced to a law enforcement officer who ended up confessing.
Yet our story is not unique. We are among 173 people nationwide to be freed from death sentences because of wrongful conviction.
Although the Trump administration resumed federal executions, there has been a trend of conservative Republicans at the state level rethinking the death penalty. They do so because they believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility and the value of human life.
As Republican state Sen. Owen Hill of Denver put it, “It is against the natural order for one created in the image of God to willfully take the life of another created in the image of God.”
There are also powerful financial arguments. The death penalty costs far more money than its alternatives such as life without parole, according to numerous studies in many states over a lot of years. In fact, death penalty trials, and there are always two — one to determine guilt or innocence and one to decide a sentence — have caused some municipalities to almost go bankrupt, while others have been forced to pass tax increases.
The death penalty is just another wasteful, big government program. The 25 states that still have the death penalty — eight of them in the West — are wasting resources that could be used to make communities safer by solving cold cases or providing more tools to law enforcement.
Take Wyoming as one example. Since the state passed its death penalty law in 1977, Wyoming has carried out one execution and today it does not have a single death row inmate. However, the state continues to spend at least $750,000 each year on a capital defense fund to train attorneys to handle death penalty cases that rarely ever come to them. It is no wonder that the overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming Legislature came just a few votes shy of repealing the death penalty in 2019, and hopes are high they will finish the job this year.
New Mexico, where I was sentenced to death, repealed the sentence in 2009 and, last year, Colorado ended capital punishment, thanks to three GOP state senators who made the crucial difference. In fact, no state west of Texas has held an execution in more than 10 years, and 2020 was another record low for new death sentences with only six total in all Western states. That’s down from a high of 72 death sentences in the West in 1982.
Another encouraging sign of change has just arrived with the filing of a death penalty repeal bill in the U.S. Congress, albeit a Democratic proposal with no GOP sponsors, yet.
As someone who barely survived an encounter with the criminal justice system, I call upon all who share my values to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.
And that last meal? It was going to be macaroni and cheese, just like my mother used to make. After I was released from death row, I sometimes ate mac and cheese three times a day.
Ron Keine is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a member of the board of directors of Witness to Innocence, a small nonprofit working to end the death penalty.