Denver Bar Association
January 2005
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Kill the Killers'? -- He Says No

by Stacy Chesney


A proponent of the death penalty, reporter Bill Kurtis covered many high-profile murder cases in his early years as a journalist: Charles Manson, Richard Speck, Juan Corona, Angela Davis.

Each heinous crime furthered his conviction that death was just punishment for such zealous murderers. Why, then, has he published a book entitled, The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis In American Justice?

"The system does not work well enough to render a judgment of death."

Explaining that for him it is not a moral issue, Kurtis, an attorney turned news anchor and investigative reporter, had a change of heart—and mind—several years ago when his state went through what he calls the "Illinois Experience." Gov. George Ryan formed a commission to examine Illinois’ death sentences and learned that 13 innocent men were on death row.
He then placed a moratorium on the death penalty, converted 164 death row sentences to life in prison, and pardoned seven.

"I said to myself: how can we make this many mistakes? I was moved to look into it as an investigative reporter."

Kurtis dug deep to discern what went wrong. Because of what he calls the "inherent bias" in the justice system, which discriminates against minorities, Kurtis says he wanted to investigate two cases "where everything should have worked perfectly." He found two defendants from white, middle-class, metropolitan areas: Ray Krone and Thomas Kimbell. Both were innocent, yet both were sentenced to death.

In the case of Ray Krone, two seemingly simple errors landed him a death sentence—twice. The first error was made by the dental expert who compared bite marks on the body to a mold of Krone’s crooked teeth. Simple enough. Except this "expert" aligned the mold on the body, touching the skin and creating new bite marks, which did, of course, match with the mold of Krone’s teeth. The well-crafted videotape showing this perfect "match" was the second mistake that led to Krone’s downfall in court. The video, which was not available during discovery, was permitted in court, and the defense was not prepared to refute the evidence.

A second trial resulted in the same verdict. Says Kurtis, "When the system locked in and began to focus on him, he had no chance." Krone’s third time in court prevailed, when DNA evidence cleared him and, in turn, convicted a sexual predator who lived just six blocks from the victim.

Kurtis points to eight major factors he says play into wrongful death sentences: overzealous prosecutors; ineffective/inexperienced defense counsels; faulty eyewitnesses; jailhouse informants who will say anything the prosecution wants; forensic fraud (often police labs have too cozy a relationship with prosecutors, he says); biased judges; coerced confessions; and circumstantial evidence.

His book explores the personal side of the two cases he investigated, with observations from each defendant, descriptions of life on death row, and arguments from both sides in court.

Why did he write the book? Ultimately, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave Kurtis the inspiration.

In Marshall’s dissent in the 1976 case, Gregg v. Georgia, which allowed states to reinstate the death penalty, he wrote, ". . . the American people are largely unaware of the information critical to a judgment on the morality of the death penalty. . . . [I]f they were better informed, they would consider it shocking, unjust, and unacceptable."

With the changes that took place in Illinois, Kurtis feels now is the time to start a discussion. "The legal system works, but not well enough to have a death penalty." He wants to send that message to the public.

The history of the death penalty in Colorado has changed with the times. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court called it "cruel and unusual punishment." This ruling, in Furman v. Georgia, declared specific death penalty statues unconstitutional, suspending death penalty cases around the country. Coloradans in 1974 voted in favor of a revised statute to reinstate the death penalty. Then, in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld death penalty
sentencing in "aggravating circumstances"—Colorado and all other states complied.

In July 1991, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, but in a special legislative session in September, Gov. Roy Romer signed it into law. Then, in 1995, Colorado designated a three-judge panel, instead of a jury, to decide death sentencing. This was ruled unconstitutional and overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1999, converting all death sentences designated during that time to life sentences.

In addition to the eight factors that Kurtis says influence wrongful outcomes in death penalty cases, "it’s just too expensive." The cases go through 10 years of appeals,
and only 10 percent result in execution. Studies show that most capital cases cost close to $2 million more than a life sentence. The Rocky Mountain News in 2002 reported that in Colorado, the AG’s office spent $394,071 on death penalty cases in 2001, not including $743,321 spent by DA’s and $1,362,444 by PD’s.

Sentencing innocent people to death is a huge problem, of course. What can be done? Kurtis first points to the 85 recommendations made by Gov. Ryan’s commission in 2002 ( While those findings are well-researched, they are not foolproof. The commission warns that even if these amendments are implemented, there is no guarantee an innocent person will not be executed at some point in the future.

Other solutions? Bring the issue to the state level. Kurtis believes that the overwhelming numbers of wrongfully accused warrant a moratorium for each state to determine the punishment it wants to mete out. "The legislatures speak for the people. The lawyers within the legislatures must lead the way and say there’s too much at risk—too much error."

Colorado performed 77 executions between 1880 and 1967. It was thirty years before another execution was carried out. On October 13, 1997, Gary Lee Davis was executed for the rape and murder of Virginia May, of Byers, CO. There are currently three men on death row in Colorado.

Editor’s Note: Bill Kurtis passed the Kansas Bar in 1966, but instead of practicing law, became a correspondent and anchorman with CBS television, where he worked for 30 years. In 1985, he formed his own production company, Kurtis Productions, which produces A&E’s Investigative Reports and Cold Case Files. His book is published by Public Affairs Books and sells for $25.

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