Death penalty focus of event

Via the Billings Gazette:

Two men coming from very different life experiences will share their common view of the death penalty Sunday during a gathering titled “Beyond Repair: True Stories of the Death Penalty.”

The free event begins at 1 p.m. at Holy Rosary Church, 521 Custer Ave., in Billings, and is open to the public. It is sponsored by the Montana Abolition Coalition.

On one side is Ray Krone, a 53-year-old Pennsylvania man who spent 10 years in prison — including four years on death row — for a crime he didn’t commit. He was exonerated in 2002. On the other side is James “Ziggy” Ziegler, 77, of Billings whose 78-year-old father was murdered in 1973 in a foiled robbery attempt.

Both men will speak on Sunday about their reasons for opposing the death penalty. The event is the first in a series across the state featuring a variety of speakers to draw attention to the issue.

Krone was living in Phoenix in 1991, working for the U.S. Postal Service, when he was accused of murdering 36-year-old Kim Ancona in a Phoenix lounge the night of Dec. 28. Her body was found the next day by the owner of the bar.

“There was no robbery, no break-in, so the police believed it had to be somebody who knew her,” said Krone in a telephone interview. “One coworker said she liked a guy, Ray Krone.”

Ancona was a casual acquaintance, Krone said. He often visited the lounge to play darts. But on the night of the crime, he was in bed asleep, an alibi his roommate corroborated.

Bite marks on the victim’s body, which prosecutors linked to Krone, led them to charge him with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. He was convicted on supposed expert testimony concerning the bite marks.

The jury trial lasted 3ƒ days, Krone said, and he stayed firm in his assertions that he was innocent.

“I was represented by a court-appointed attorney, and I had no money for experts,” he said. “I was found guilty, sentenced to death and they said I had no remorse. Of course I didn’t, I didn’t do it.”

Krone will talk on Sunday about the appeals and the DNA evidence that eventually led in 2002 to his exoneration and the capture of the actual killer. As the 100th innocent man in the past 29 years to be released from prison after spending time on death row, Krone’s case caught the notice of the national media.

“One hundred mistakes had been made,” Krone said. “So it got a lot of media attention,” including reports in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

He gives much of the credit for his surviving prison and getting released to family and friends who never stopped believing in his innocence. Family members also gave him the money he needed to hire an attorney with the expertise to help him.

“It was the source of my strength,” Krone said.

While he has every reason to be angry, Krone said he prefers to look forward and to help other exonerated death row inmates. Krone is director of communications and training for Witness to Innocence, an organization founded by Sister Helen Prejean, nationally known for her work against the death penalty.

The nonprofit group is made up of exonerated death row inmates. They help others in similar situations, along with their families, and train those former inmates how to speak out against the death penalty.

Krone travels around the country to share his story and advocate both ending the death penalty and changing the justice system. He calls the 10 years, three months and eight days he spent behind bars “the price we pay to have a story to tell.”

For Ziegler, the price was losing his father prematurely. His father was sitting in a store parking lot, waiting for his wife who was shopping inside.

Two would-be robbers shot him and left him for dead. Ziegler’s mother walked out of the store only to see two emergency responders taking her husband’s body out of the car, out of her life.

“She survived another 14 years, but she was never the same,” Ziegler said. “It really affected our whole family.”

On Sunday he will share more details of the effects of his father’s death. Despite the pain, Ziegler, who has spent the past 32 years working with inmates at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, opposes the death penalty.

First, he said, there is always the possibility that, like Krone, a death row inmate has been wrongly convicted. And second, Ziegler, a devout Catholic, said people of faith must be consistent in their faith.

“If you’re going to stand against abortion, you have to stand against capitol punishment,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Contact Susan Olp at solp@billingsgazette.com or 657-1281.