After being released from the Santa Fe State Prison 30 years ago, Ron Keine vowed he would never set foot in this state again. But last week, Keine found himself back in New Mexico to face his old nightmare. This time, after being sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit, he is advocating against the death penalty and views New Mexico as fertile ground in the fight to do away with capital punishment.
The Alibi spoke with Keine after he finished testifying in front of state lawmakers in Santa Fe, and just moments before he boarded a plane to return home to Michigan.
You were sentenced to death in 1974, explain what happened?
Basically a murder occurred in the Albuquerque area. A college student was killed, it was a brutal murder and law enforcement was looking for a culprit. About a week after that, myself and a few of my motorcycle buddies [Richard Greer, Clarence Smith and Thomas Gladish] from Michigan went through Albuquerque. We left California and were heading back to Michigan. We were stopped by the police because of a hassle we had with some hitchhikers. We caught them stealing from us and they were put on the road. We were in our vans. It was wintertime. We were kind of rowdy, drinking beer all the way. Later on, the police said that we committed an armed robbery at a gas station. Our attorneys later found out that the station had burned to the ground two years before. [The police] held us in jail for a while and told us we were being held for murder and we would be put on death row right before our trial. They were looking for [the person] who did this; they had nobody. They had these rowdy bikers and basically the prosecution made up this whole case to fit us.
Just because they wanted someone to prosecute?
I guess so. Just because they heard of the murder and they heard about these rowdy bikers. Basically they more or less figured [we] had something to do with it. They found a motel maid who was also a prostitute. The sheriff's deputies basically passed her around as a sex toy and literally told her what they wanted her to say. They looked at the evidence of the murder and tailored her testimony.
You were released in 1976, how did that come about?
Basically one of the newspapers found the witness living in St. Cloud, Minn. The Detroit News approached her later in 75. The Detroit News came to Albuquerque to show how a group of four men from Michigan were convicted of murder here. The reporter, Doug Glazier, knew something was fishy here. At the time, he was staying at a motel in Albuquerque. [A sheriff and two detectives] threatened him and told him to get out of town. The reporter immediately called his editor. The editor sent more people to Albuquerque to investigate. The reporter moved to a place that the sheriffs couldn't find him. [The threat] prompted the Detroit News to spend roughly $50,000 to investigate the case. The reporters uncovered all kinds of things. They went to California and found people who said we were there. The sheriffs were trying to say we were in Albuquerque a week earlier and committed the murder.
The witness [changed her testimony] and said she didn't witness anything and she never saw anything.
What piece of evidence set you guys free?
The judge denied our motion for a new trial because he ruled the woman is lying. All of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, a guy named Kerry Lee went to a church and said he experienced a religious conversion and found Jesus. He said to a pastor that four men were going to be executed soon for a crime he committed.
Were you guys going to be executed soon during that time?
Yeah, the warden came down and asked me if I had any last requests. I told him "Yeah when I'm going to get executed, will you hold my hand?" He told me I was an asshole. This sense of humor keeps you going. You have to have it.
What happened to the sheriff and detectives?
The detectives were fired. Nothing happened to the sheriff.
Is this your first time back?
I came back once for a hearing. I was scared to death to ever come through here. [The sheriff, deputies, prosecution] had that much power over you. They could kill you and there was nothing you could do about it. I would go completely around the state rather than go through it.
Do you still keep in contact with your buddies?
They are all dead. Two of them never made it out of death row mentally. Physically they did. But they lost it. For an innocent man to be on death row, they go through all this degradation. The depression, the highs, the lows, back and forth—-after a while it takes its toll. They were not the same guys after that. One guy was almost catatonic. There were days when he wouldn't eat. He committed suicide afterward.
What kept you sane?
Yeah, mostly law books. I had just gotten out of school before I joined the bike club. I had a quest for knowledge, but I had to shift my focus to law.
Prisoners' rights are guaranteed in most prisons, but we never got that on death row. When it came to law books, they didn't let me check them out of the library. But I got a certain idea. In college, they will discontinue law books and sell them for cheap. We had people go to bookstores. We had students that our attorneys or friends knew to send us these books. They mailed it from a publisher and bookstore and I still got the books. Hope and fighting for the case kept me sane. Humor helped a lot.
Why did you choose to come back to New Mexico?
I'm back here now because New Mexico has the distinction to be the first state in over 20 years to consider abolishing the death penalty and I'm here to help. It's effective when there's an actual person that is there to tell their stories. Out of 215 nations in the world right now, less than 10 of them have capital punishment. The others have decided that it's humanly wrong to kill people to show them that it's wrong to kill people. Italy, France, Spain and Germany are saying "It's the 21st century, wake up.” They are talking about doing trade embargos and sanctions against the U.S. because of their stand on capital punishment. New Mexico can play a key role right now in starting to repeal the death penalty in the U.S. Sixty five percent of the voters in New Mexico are against capital punishment when you add two things. [The first is] an alternative which is life without the possibility of parole. There are some bad guys out there. I was with them. Some of them, should not even be there, they should be in the mental institution. The other alternative is to take the money [the government] has been spending on capital punishment cases--which is $3.2 to $5 million per case mostly in fighting appeals at all levels all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and give it to the families of the victims. It can be used for the children's education and counseling. Sometimes it is the breadwinners who are killed. This $3.2 to $5 million per case is directly out of the pocket of the taxpayer. If a murder happens in your state, you're going to pay for it. It can better be used for helping pay for the families of the victims. We're gaining momentum.
Do you find it ironic that the state that put you on death row is now gaining this momentum?
Yes, that's why I'm here. I'm here on a premise that Edmund Burke said, "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." If you see evil like this and you don't do anything about it, then you're maintaining the status quo and your saying "Everything is fine with me."
What did you do with your life when you got out of prison?
I couldn't find a job, for one. I come from a small town—a population of 18,000. Everybody knows everybody. When I got convicted of murder, everybody knew my face. It was prominent in their mind on a weekly basis. Here I am, any place I went people said "Hey, that's the guy that had something to do with a murder somewhere." I wanted to cry out and say "Why didn't you read the whole [article]? I didn't commit the murder!" Some employers said "Ron, you're a nice guy, but I can't hire you because it wouldn't be good for morale around here." That's when I discovered there was a God because he made macaroni and cheese which I ate almost everyday. Sometimes I didn't eat at all and I'd go to the Salvation Army to get a meal.
How did this situation get better?
In Michigan we use rock salt to put on the road when it's snowing. I bought some rock salt. I saved up enough to buy a pickup truck. I'd go home, package the rock salt in bags and go from house to house selling it for a dollar a bag.
Where did you live?
With friends, people let me crash [at their house]. I'm here now working with the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty and we need funds really bad, we are hurting for funds. The website is www.nmrepeal.org
What are you currently doing for work?
I own a plumbing company in Michigan. I'm also very well involved in politics. A few years ago, I was chairman of the Republican Party in my area. I, at one time, held seven positions—appointed and elected.
You know the question I'm going to ask next, why a Republican?
Because I believe in the fiscal policies of the Republican Party, I don't follow party line ever. I'm going to run my group, what I think is right. I believe in the humanity of people and maybe that's my quest to stop this barbaric practice of executing people. We have to bring the U.S. out of the dark ages. We don't have a death penalty in Michigan. It was abolished in 1846 when 11 people that were executed were found to be completely innocent. By the way, New Mexico has the distinction of the worst record in the U.S. for (wrongful convictions in capital punishment cases).
Being a Republican and an advocate for repealing the death penalty, do you find a contradiction in this?
The Republicans where I come from in Michigan keep capital punishment off of the law books. This isn't the case everywhere. Well, even in this state we have Republicans that are against it. Several Republicans have cosponsored the bill.
What do you think is the appropriate punishment for murderers if not the death penalty?
When somebody's convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death, only 10 percent ever get executed. What happens is that the families of the victims don't get closure. When sentenced to life in prison without parole, the family now has closure. The Bible may say "An eye for an eye," but it does not say to kill people. The Lord will deal with that. They will get what they have coming when they die. God says, "Thou shall not kill."
Do you have a family?
I have four girls; they are grown and have their own lives.
What do you wish for them?
I've never been asked this before. I want them to be happy. I have one daughter that doesn't want to go to college and be a doctor or a lawyer. I tell her "Go to college anyway, you might meet one." [My daughters] are proud of me and my fight against capital punishment. They write papers in school about what their family went through. ...
There's a syndrome that people get when they're on death row, not talked about much. Emotions in prison will get you hurt. I remember sitting on death row, I'd wake up from a daydream and remember: I'm on death row and I didn't do anything. It hits you in the face like a sonic boom. It gives you panic attacks, then the anger starts to set in. I got angry with myself. "Get out of this," I said. Every time, you lose your focus. Now, I have the second part of the syndrome, which is the killer. When I first got out, I refused to talk about the case to anybody. It was a bad time in my life. I wouldn't do any television or media interviews. Every time you hear a speaker somewhere, it puts you right back on the row. It never ends. You'll never lose it, every time you speak about it. After 30 years I still have it, and other guys that have gone through it still have it.
It wasn't until I focused on my family that I said "I have to do something about this." I knew I had to go back to New Mexico as much as I feared it. I had to stop this from happening to other people. Even though the murder of an innocent person is a heinous crime, what the government does is even more heinous. They remind you everyday "I'm going to kill you in eight months." This is the worst type of murder the government commits. For 10 years, [death row inmates] are hit in the face with this. It is cruel, inhumane and not respective of a modern, civilized society.
Do you ever think this happened for a reason?
Oh yes. I believe maybe it's Karma, maybe it's God. Maybe it's something I went through so I could stop it.
Would you still be an advocate like this if you hadn't gone through it?
No. The most important thing for advocating against the death penalty is empathy. I've always been told that the American justice system is the best in the world. Now I know it's the worst in the world.
Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel?
Yes. Oh my God, yes I do. We are one of the few nations in the world that have capital punishment. The others are Iraq, Iran, communist Korea and communist China. In New Mexico, the voter approval is 65 percent against the death penalty. The rest of the nation stands at 62 percent. I think New Mexico is starting a precedent here. It's snowballing. Every now and then we gain another state. People are going to start voting. We have to make it hit home for people. They need to go out there and vote.
I know you've talked to many people about this situation. What can you tell me that you haven't told another newspaper?
What a murder victim's family goes through is also something that an executed person's family has gone through.
What did you learn from your prison experience?
I have no faith in the criminal justice system anymore. In my case, every single piece of evidence that the prosecutors confessed to the jury was a lie. The guy who confessed proved he did it, down to every detail. I now know the system doesn't work, it has to be fixed. We have to bring the U.S. and New Mexico into the 21st century. Until we can fix the system, lets stop killing innocent people.
Have you written a book about your experiences?
I wrote a journal when I was in prison and somehow it got lost. I've tried for years to locate it and I can't.
Do you plan to write a book?
Yes, I do.
How many states have you visited?
Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and New Mexico. I'm just now taking the time to do this. Anytime I have spare time I work on the issue.
In New Mexico, I get the feeling that I might have made a bit of difference in convincing the governor to repeal the death penalty. I spoke to several senators and state reps. I worked with the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. I might have made a difference. I am actually a person standing in front of them telling them that this is wrong and what happened to me. I can see the coalition growing and politicians at our side.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Have a safe trip home.
Thank you, thanks so much for doing this.