Imagine it's the wild and woolly 1970s, and you and your friends decide to take your van and leave your quiet Michigan town to take a trip through the American Southwest.
Just a few years after the film, Easy Rider, and not too long after author Thomas Wolfe chronicled the travels of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they toured the nation in their psychedelic bus, many young people looked to the open road for adventure or, at least, a different type of experience from their quiet, middle class upbringings.
When Ronald Keine and the rest of his friends in what he calls his "motorcycle club" were traveling through New Mexico, though, their experience began to resemble a bad B-list exploitation movie — with horrific real-life consequences.
Keine and his buddies picked up a hitchhiker outside Albuquerque, a not uncommon occurrence in the mellow decade still wallowing in a contact high from the '60s. But when the man attempted to steal their beer, he got a quick comeuppance: One of the bikers slapped the hitchhiker, took the $1.17 that he had on him and dumped him along the road just outside town. As Keine jokes, "How do you tell the difference between a hippie and a biker? Hit him and find out."
In the days before cellular telephones, it took awhile for the irate man to walk into Albuquerque, where he reported the incident to the sheriff. Later that day Keine and his friends were arrested in a nearby town for armed robbery, despite the fact that none of the men were carrying any weapons. After the hitchhiker decided he didn't want to stick around to testify in court, the sheriff instead charged the bikers with the armed robbery of a gas station.
Once the case got to arraignment, it took a Kafka-esque turn. The judge noted that the gas station mentioned in the charges had burned down a few years earlier, before the alleged crime occurred, and dismissed the charges. Without ever being released from their jail cells, Keine and his friends were accused of murdering a young college student who was shot in a local motel a week earlier. The news came as a shock to Keine, who was unaware of the murder and had never been to the motel.
"I hate to say it, but if you're out driving in that part of the country and you have long hair, and you don't have a cowboy hat or gun rack in your pickup truck, you're gonna be arrested, or at least you were in those days," Keine says. "It's very redneck."
Under a provision in New Mexico law, Keine spent the entire time from his arraignment for the murder through his trial and subsequent conviction on Death Row. After a motel maid testified she had seen Keine in the room, he was convicted and sentenced to death, even though he had credit card receipts showing he wasn't in the state at the time of the killing. Keine spent years in prison and was 10 days away from being executed in the gas chamber when he was exonerated of the crime, thanks not to the legal system but mostly to an investigation by The Detroit News.
'It was made up'
Now Keine is a passionate crusader against capital punishment and is a frequent speaker at events organized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it attempts to get the death penalty abolished in the United States.
"Once you're on Death Row, it's a juggernaut you have to fight," he says. "You have to fight it and fight it and fight it, just to be heard."
Noting statistics that show at least 123 people in 25 states have been released after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die since 1973, he cynically adds, "Where did all that evidence come from in these cases, to have a jury convict then to death? It was made up. It was made up by prosecutors or investigators."
In Keine's case, that proved to be true. A later investigation involved the maid revealing she was coerced into her testimony by investigators. Around the same time, a man walked into a North Carolina church and confessed to a priest that he committed the murder. The priest urged the man to turn himself in, which he did. The man, an ex-police officer, claimed the college student was accidentally killed during a drug bust gone bad and got eight years in prison. In a mind-boggling twist, a federal search warrant later showed the murder weapon was in the sheriff's safe the entire time, meaning he knew Keine wasn't the culprit.
To this day, many people in Keine's hometown eyes him suspiciously because of the death sentence's taint. Worse, he suffers from memories about the abuse he suffered in prison — a guard once threw scalding hot coffee on his face while asleep; another time he was beaten so badly by guards he spent two weeks in a wheelchair.
Newly elected Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a former prison psychologist, says he has misgivings about the fairness of the state's system for implementing capital punishment and might issue a moratorium pending an analysis; citing similar concerns, outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of everyone in his state to life in prison in early 2003.
Ohio has 193 people on Death Row, including two women. It ranks second highest, behind Texas, among U.S. states for the number of people put to death during the past three years. Nationally, about 3,500 people are awaiting execution.
The United States is one of only 20 nations, out of 220 sovereign states worldwide, that still allow capital punishment. Most western, industrialized nations have abolished the practice; among nations that put criminals to death are Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.
'In spite of the system'
Although rarely discussed publicly, the European Union periodically considers implementing higher tariffs or trade embargos against the United States to persuade it to drop the practice, according to a documentary by TV newscaster Bill Kurtis.
The ACLU points to several studies that indicate the threat of capital punishment isn't a deterrent to murder. Most people commit murder in the heat of passion or under the influence of alcohol or drugs and don't ponder the possible consequences, studies show. States that have capital punishment don't have lower murder rates than those that have abolished them.
Jeffrey Gamso, the ACLU of Ohio's legal director, says the state's capital punishment law is applied in a random method that violates constitutional rights. To make his point, he cites a recent case in which a man accused of murder had his case re-tried on a technicality. Once, a jury sentenced him to death; another jury sentenced him to life in prison, although no new facts were presented in the case.
"It's completely arbitrary," Gamso says. "It's all the luck of the draw."
Typically, it's not the criminal justice system that identifies people wrongfully convicted on Death Row; it's law students, journalists and advocacy groups.
"There's no rhyme or reason to it," Gamso says. "You're the person that some guy stumbled across your case and decided to fight for. How many aren't discovered before it's too late?"
Keine puts it more bluntly.
"We were freed in spite of the system, not because it works." ©