Bill Kurtis argues against death penalty

ReAnne Utemark

On Friday, Nov. 11, Bill Kurtis, journalist and graduate of Washburn University School of Law, addressed a standing-room-only crowd in the Bradbury Thompson Center. Kurtis’ speech was entitled “What I Have Learned About the Death Penalty.” The focus of the oration was on the faults of the current penal system.

“Our system is great if everyone followed the rules,” said Kurtis, during a question and answer session following the speech.

Donna Schneweis, KCADP coordinator, welcomed the audience and explained the goals of KCADP before Kurtis took the stage. Schneweis gave a brief introduction of Kurtis.

Kurtis is a 1966 graduate of the School of Law, was a reporter and correspondent for CBS news. In 1995, Kurtis began his own production company, and he now produces “Cold Case Files” and “Investigative Report” on the A&E channel. Kurtis has also written a book about his ideas on the death penalty called “The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice.”

Kurtis began his speech by explaining that when he graduated from the School of Law in 1966, he believed in the system, and was an advocate in the death penalty. However, in 1998, Kurtis decided to “go on a journey” when he had heard that a man in Illinois came to the conclusion that 13 men had been wrongfully convicted. Kurtis wanted to find the mistakes in these trials and figure out where the legal system had gone awry. He gave his audience two examples of men who had been convicted and then released because their trials had been handled poorly.

One was about Ray Krone, who had been at the top of his high school class, spent nine years in the Air Force and decided to retire from the military in Phoenix. Krone liked to frequent the CBS Lounge.

Three days after Christmas, one of the women working there had been killed and left in the bathroom. The police began an investigation and found the name of Krone in the woman’s address book. The police went to find Krone and one of the investigators realized that Krone’s teeth were crooked and thought that his teeth would match the bite marks on the deceased’s body.

A first-year forensic scientist claimed that the mold and the bite marks matched. The investigator called in a bite mark specialist who told them that they did not match. Kurtis told the audience that that evidence somehow never made it into the trial. What did make it to the trial was a video, which showed the photographs of the bite marks and a superimposed graphic of Krone’s teeth.

“I laughed because television is magic and you can make it show anything,” said Kurtis.

Krone was in prison for 10 years before DNA evidence convinced a jury to find Krone innocent. Kurtis went on to enumerate several more issues in the trial which he felt led to Krone’s mistrial. He cited the political aspirations of prosecutors as a reason some evidence was manipulated to a point where an innocent man would be convicted and the prosecutor would have another won case to show future constituents.

The second case Kurtis talked about involved a small, hemophiliac man who had been charged with killing a mother and three small children. He was arrested 18 months after police found the family in a trailer park.

“It was the kind of emotional trial that you lynch people for,” said Kurtis.

Kurtis explained that there were enough comments from the psychiatric ward at the hospital, where the man had been in rehabilitation, and investigators had enough to piece together a circumstantial case. The defendant’s lawyer had never tried a homicide trial and the prosecution consisted of a lawyer from the Penn. Attorney General’s office.

According to Kurtis, the imbalance of experience and the allowance of inflammatory evidence in the form of pictures of the children were just a few of the causes of the defendant’s subsequent conviction and death sentence.

There was a technicality that allowed a new trial and a Kenyan forensic scientist presented the idea that the accused was simply too small to kill the 250-pound mother. He also presented the idea that the father would be more likely. The jury ended up finding the man innocent.

Kurtis concluded the speech with a question and answer session with the audience. A number of audience members asked him about his death penalty research. He explained that 110 countries have abolished the death penalty and implored the states that have not already done so to dissolve the institution.

“I have come to the conclusion that while we make too many mistakes, the death penalty should be taken off the table,” said Kurtis.

The event was sponsored by the Washburn University School of Law Center for Excellence in Advocacy and the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The KCADP is a non-profit organization that is made up of those who are interested in abolishing the death penalty.