Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Senate Public Affairs to Hear Death Penalty View

House Bill 285 makes its first stop in the Senate this afternoon. In the past the Public Affairs Committee has passed this bill out, giving it to Senate Judiciary, where it is laid to rest.

A man who was sentenced to be executed in New Mexico back in the '70s has written a letter to legislators asking them to vote for the bill.

This was Ron Keine, one of the four members of the Vagos motorcycle gang, who spent 22 months on death row. He and his co-defendants were freed only after the real murderer confessed after a religious conversion.

In the letter Keine says that when falsely-accused death-row inmates are exonerated, it's not a sign that the system is working. Instead, he says, it's usually because some outside force -- in his case it was a Detroit newspaper -- forces the issue.

I don't think Keine is coming to New Mexico to personally lobby for the bill this year. But he was here four years ago and I interviewed him. Here's a re-print of that story.

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 16, 2005

Even when he was sitting in court on trial for murder and listening to evidence that eventually proved to be fabricated, Ron Keine and his three co-defendants had a hard time believing they were in serious trouble.

"We just thought it was a bunch of rednecks messing with us again, " Keine said Tuesday. "They're just trying to teach us a lesson. They're going to turn us loose and say, 'Get out of town and don't come back.' "

But he was wrong. In 1974, Keine and three other members of a California-based motorcycle club were found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of William Velten, a University of New Mexico student.

Keine and his friends spent 22 months on death row until the real killer came forward and confessed. At one point, Keine was so close to going to the gas chamber that an assistant warden came to talk to him about what he wanted for his last meal. In late 1975, a judge exonerated the four wrongly accused.

Keine, 57, who lives near Detroit, is back in New Mexico this week to talk to state legislators about supporting House Bill 576, which would repeal the death penalty.

Among those he's especially trying to reach are Republicans who favor capital punishment. Keine is a past chairman of the Clinton Township, Mich., Republican Party. "One reason I got into politics is to try to change the system legally from within, " he said. "I chose the Republican Party, because I agree with their fiscal issues."

Except for coming to New Mexico to give a deposition in a civil case against the state about eight months after his release, Keine said this was his first time he'd come back. "I didn't realize how beautiful New Mexico is, " he said. "I didn't see that much of it before."

The other defendants -- Thomas Gladish, Clarence Smith and Wayne Greer -- have died since their release.

A bunch of punks

The Velten case is one of the state judiciary's most infamous miscarriages of justice. A Central Avenue motel maid who testified that she saw the four bikers murder Velten in a room at her motel recanted her story and said she'd been told by sheriff's investigators to tell the story. There was no blood or other evidence of a bloody killing in the motel, despite the fact the victim -- whose body was found in a remote area southeast of Albuquerque -- had been shot, stabbed and castrated.

Keine insisted, as he has since the beginning, that he and the others were still in California when the murder took place. "We left from California a week after the murder, " he said. Gas receipts backed up their story.

Keine and the others were going to Michigan, where most of them had family, in a borrowed van. "We were a bunch of punks, " he said. "A long-haired motorcycle gang who talked a lot tougher than we really were."

Keine said his only previous criminal record was a conviction for malicious destruction of property when he was 19.

The bikers came to Albuquerque authorities' attention after they were arrested in connection with an alleged armed robbery of a Tucumcari gas station.

Keine said the gas station had burned down more than a year before the arrest. He said the group had stopped there to urinate, and he took a set of cow horns from a pile of rubble. "We had guns in the van -- legal guns -- but we were accused of armed robbery, " he said.

The group was arrested in Oklahoma and extradited to New Mexico, where they were held in the death row section of the old penitentiary for two months before their murder trial.

"There were two prison snitches who claimed that we'd confessed to the murder, " Keine said. "Every single thread of evidence they had against us was manufactured. It was a big lie. They had to know it."

At the trial, Keine and the others sat silently in the court as prosecutors made their case against them. "Our attorney tells us to show no emotion whatsoever, so you're sitting there raging as the prosecutor tells lies. And the papers write, 'They showed no remorse, ' " Keine said.

"I kept thinking, 'This is the American justice system. When these rednecks get done with us, they'll just send us on our way.' I was naive."

The four were convicted, and under the state death-penalty law then in effect, all first-degree murderers were to be punished by execution.

That law -- passed by the Legislature in reaction to the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned all states' capital-punishment laws -- eventually was found to be unconstitutional. Nobody was executed during the time it was in effect.

Life in 'The Dungeon'

Keine recalled the 22 months he spent in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the basement of the old main facility, a place known then as "The Dungeon." He said he and his fellow death-row inmates were allowed to shower only once a week, though he got around that by positioning himself below the faucet on his sink.

"Every so often, I'd smack a guard, just so they'd take me out to go to a hearing (in another part of the prison), " Keine said.

At one point, when his execution date was only 10 days away, an assistant warden came down to ask Keine about his last meal and any other final requests.

"I was a smartass back then, " he said. "I told him all I wanted was for him to be holding my hand when they put me in the chamber and dropped the pellet."

Fortunately, the date of execution was delayed.

The case unravels

On the outside, the case against the bikers was beginning to fall apart. A girlfriend of Greer's contacted The Detroit News, saying, "They locked up my old man. There's no way in hell he's guilty."

The paper sent a reporter to Albuquerque, who started poking around and finding problems in getting documents pertaining to the case. More reporters followed. One of them tracked down the motel maid, who admitted her story was a complete fabrication and she'd been jailed on the order of a prosecutor and threatened with charges of accessory to murder when she tried to recant before the trial started.

Still, Judge William Riordan, who had presided over the original trial, refused to grant a new trial for the four bikers.

But in 1975, a drifter named Kerry Rodney Lee had a religious conversion and confessed to the crime. He led authorities to the gun that had killed Velten.

This led to another court hearing in which Judge Vernon Payne ruled the state had to give the bikers a new trial. When prosecutor James Brandenberg said he wouldn't bring new charges, Payne ruled the four men were to be freed.

"A guard came up to me and said he had to take me back to prison, " Keine recalled. Keine refused and yelled to the judge, "Your honor, this guy's trying to handcuff me."

Payne said from the bench, "These men are free, " Keine said.

"We walked out still in prison garb, " he said. The men went to a party at the office of their attorney, Hank Farrah, and drank champagne. Keine was driven back to his home state by a Detroit News reporter.

Life after prison

But life after death row was hardly a party for Keine. "It was hard to find a job, " he said. "I found that people read the headlines but don't read the whole story. All they knew is that I'd been 'involved' in a murder.

"I had employers tell me they couldn't hire me, because I'd be bad for employee morale and scare the women, " he said.

And he doesn't really blame them. "Who would believe that attorneys would stand up there and lie and put a person to death? Who's going to believe that?" asked Keine, who now owns a plumbing business.

Even harder than his economic problems was what Keine calls "The Syndrome."

For years after his release, he said, he'd be reading a book or a magazine or be sleeping when "you wake up and it hits you, this cold feeling. The anger builds up. I'd get mad at myself for not being able to leave it behind. It puts you right back there."

Eventually, he said, "I just gave that up." Instead, he's putting his energy into fighting against capital punishment.

Keine said he's been actively fighting for death-penalty repeal for the past few years. "I didn't want to talk about it for many years, " he said.

But now he wants to help prevent anyone else from suffering what he went through.

Recalling his thoughts during his trial, Keine said, "I didn't think they'd convict us and send us to death. I had faith in the American justice system. Now I know it's broken. I don't believe the government should kill people."