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PLEASANT GROVE — When Ray Krone stepped out of prison into the Arizona sunlight on April 8, 2002 — a free man after spending 10 years in prison, including three on death row — he told reporters of his faith in God.
But when a reporter asked, given his faith, why did he think God left him in prison for all those years, Krone said his "mind went blank." How could he answer?
Then it came to him.
"Maybe it's not about those 10 years," he said. "Maybe it's about what I have to do for the next 10 years."
Krone, the 100th death row exoneree in the U.S., shared his story at a forum Thursday at the Eleve Event Center in Pleasant Grove, a conversation hosted by the group Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
Kevin Greene, legal director of the Utah Justice Coalition and director of Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said his group organized Krone's presentation in hopes of starting a conversation about capital punishment in Utah.
Political conservatives generally support the death penalty, Greene said, but that's inconsistent with their general "distrust" of government control.
"I don't expect the government to be 100 percent correct all the time," he said, "but when someone's life is involved, one innocent person put to death is one too many and justifies repealing the death penalty."
Krone was wrongfully convicted — twice — in the 1991 murder of 36-year-old Kim Ancona in a Phoenix bar. Just seven months after he was arrested, Krone was facing the death penalty.
After years of appeals, emotional tolls on him and his family, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, Krone's conviction was overturned after new DNA tests proved the blood found on Ancona didn't belong to him or the victim, but matched another man.
Before his fight with the justice system, Krone was a proponent of the death penalty, he said.
"I believed in it. I believed it should be reserved for the worst of the worst," he said. "But now I've come to understand that the risk of executing an innocent human being is far too large to take."
Krone visited Utah to share that message at a time when groups including the Utah Justice Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have urged the Legislature to repeal the state's capital punishment law, especially after the return of a firing squad last year.
Now, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring a bill to call for mandatory death penalty for offenders who specifically target or assault a police officer, firefighter or correctional officer.
Krone advocated for Utah to repeal its capital punishment law, arguing that every state's justice system ultimately is a "human system" prone to "human error," and he's witnessed its flaws firsthand.
Before he was accused murder, Krone was an Air Force veteran and a postal worker with no criminal record who happened to throw darts at the Phoenix bar where Ancona worked.
"If they can do it to me, they can do it to anybody," Krone said. "If I can go to death row, I'm not sure there are too many of us that are safe."
So far, 156 people across the U.S. have been exonerated from death row due to wrongful convictions.
But Ray, an outspoken proponent of the death penalty, said Thursday that Krone's story is "tragic," but he believe's in Utah's justice system.
"In Utah, we have the highest bar in the nation to put someone on death row," Ray said, noting that a jury has to unanimously determine the death penalty is a fitting punishment. "I'm not concerned about an innocent person being put on death row in Utah. Our process is thorough."
Currently, nine people sit on death row in Utah, all of whom Ray said "admit their guilt" but are appealing their sentences on "technicalities," not innocence.
Krone said he's heard that argument over and over again, and yet no system is perfect.
"Everybody who defends the death penalty says they get it right, they're the best ones, and they make sure it doesn't happen," he said. "That's an arrogance that should scare all of us."