Former death row inmates made a visit to the Graduate College of Social Work to speak with students about the challenges of wrongful convictions and what it was like to be on death row for a crime they did not commit.
“Witness to Innocence,” a program founded in 2005 by exonerated death row inmates, aims to change perceptions and put an end to the death penalty by placing Americans face-to-face with those who have lived through the sentence.
“We are here to educate; we plant seeds” said Ron Keine, assistant director of the program.
“We’ve single-handedly stopped the death penalty in Wisconsin, and we ended it in New Mexico with the help of a lot of other people because we can’t do this alone.”
Kleine and three of his friends spent two years on death row in New Mexico for the 1974 kidnapping and killing of William Velten, a student at the University of New Mexico.
“When we got arrested, we basically were given this attorney (who) walked up to us at arraignment and said, ‘Hi, I’m your attorney. We can make a deal with you—if you confess, we’ll get you life without parole.’”
What Keine and his friends did not know was that the whole thing was a cover-up for a cop. Keine said that the prosecution went so far as to pay one witness, a doctor, $50,000 to testify, though he later admitted to lying. A hotel maid was also bribed to testify against the men.
Ten days before Keine was scheduled to be executed in New Mexico’s gas chamber, another man confessed to the killing.
In addition to putting an end to the death penalty, “Witness to Innocence” also helps exonerees readjust to civilian life once they are released from prison. Even though they have been exonerated, many of these people struggle to find jobs because most employers only pay attention to the word “murder.” About 15 percent of funds raised by the program go toward helping members struggling with unemployment.
“This is the problem with a lot of people who are out on exoneration — there’s nothing for them there,” said Keine. “If you went to prison for a crime that you did, you get out on parole. You have a parole officer to make sure you can get a job, housing, a way to feed yourself — we don’t have that. I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s.”