Ron Keine refused to become one of those people who find religion in prison on the way to death row. No, he decided, repenting is for the ones who are here for a reason. I have done nothing wrong.
Ron felt the justice system was a joke. "Justice was only a word that the court system was using to put four innocent men, myself among them, to death in New Mexico for a murder we did not commit," he said. As the days drew closer to his execution, his faith in God withered. "You did this to me, God!" Ron cried out. "I’m not gonna get on my knees and beg, because I don’t want your help! I am an innocent man!"
Not long before the date of their scheduled death, the men decided: They may take everything from us, but we will take our own lives. They planned suicide as a way to hold onto a small shred of the freedom that corrupt men had ripped away from them. But as the reality of such a choice sank in, something stopped Ron. Wait, hold on, he realized,. If I do that I’ll go to hell. He knew that was something even worse than death row.
Ron looked at his life. What would the Ron of years before, the altar boy from Detroit, have though if he could have envisioned sitting in a prison cell, days away from an execution by the state of New Mexico? After high school, Ron rebelled and joined one of Detroit’s motorcycle clubs. His best friend, Doc, convinced him to ride to California. They were young, had bikes, and wanted a free-spirited life. On February 14,1972, the day after Ron got his mechanic certification, Doc and he rode the cold Northern Route to California. Once there, they joined the "baddest" motorcycle gang they could find.
After a couple years riding in California, Doc and Ron and three of their club brothers decided to return to Detroit for a visit. Since it was winter, everyone piled into a van. Along the way, they saw two hippy hitchhikers and decided to give them a lift. The hippies looked intimidated upon seeing the van full of five bikers, but they were greeted with beers and welcomed. Then one of the hippies was caught shoving beers into his knapsack. It resulted in them getting put out on the road; one with a black eye.
A couple hours after the hippies were dishonorably discharged, six police squad cars pulled over the van and arrested all five occupants. The hippies had used a pay phone to alert the police to the van. The five of them were charged with armed robbery of a party store on Route 40. It went to trial but was dismissed when the judge realized that the party store that they allegedly robbed had burned down two years earlier.
When the judge threw out the trial, the detainees expected to be released. Instead, a couple weeks later, two detectives from Albuquerque, New Mexico extradited them to their state. Suddenly, what seemed like an inconvenient incident turned into the five men charged by the state prosecutor with first degree murder. In the mountains outside of Albuquerque, the body of a New Mexican college student had been found. These men had not even been in the area, but it did not matter to the prosecution. The whole ordeal was sham. Even before the trial began, the five had moved from the jail to death row and were told: "Get used to it, because that’s where you’re gonna end up."
To their utter disbelief and complete horror, the verdict at the trial was guilty and the sentence was death. Still, Ron would not turn to God: "I would not pray, because any God who would let an innocent man die like this was not one I wanted to talk to."
When the men were mere weeks away from their death, a South Carolina drifter, the real murderer, read about it in a newspaper. He walked into a Southern Baptist church where he had a conversion and then went to New Mexico and confessed. Amazingly, the prosecutor refused to hear the confession stating that those responsible were already behind bars. The imprisoned men had been back to court five times to motion for a new trial but were always shot down.
Then, one of the men on death row had a girlfriend back in Michigan who alerted a court reporter from the Detroit News that her boyfriend also from Michigan was about to be executed in the state of Arizona. As the reporter investigated and perused through files on the case, he inquired as to why so many of the documents were missing. That night two deputies knocked on his motel door and told him to get the hell out of town unless he wanted to end up on death row too. This reporter had covered the court beat for twenty-two years. After this incident, he called his boss who sent two more reporters to New Mexico.
This put the wheels in motion. Judge Vernon Payne ordered a retrial. The holes in the case were easily revealed. For example, the man, who had testified as the pathologist for the murder victim, was found to have been paid $50,000 for his false testimony. The woman whose testimony sent the men to death row, was ready to tell the truth—something she had always wanted to do but had been blackmailed by the prosecutors. The reporter had tracked her down in Minnesota. Once she was assured that there would be no retaliation against her, she was only too happy to testify. The woman revealed that she had been tutored in what do say and how to say it. Only four of the five men were ultimately convicted because they had forgotten to include the fifth man in their accusation. In the end, a week before the men’s execution date, the original indictments were dismissed in a re-trial. The murder weapon was eventually traced to the real killer who confessed to the crime.
"After the verdict, one of the guards was trying to handcuff me again," Ron recalls. So he indignantly asked the guard: "Are you arresting me for something?"
"We need to sign you out," he said.
"I did not sign to get in and I’m not signing to get out, " Ron stated. "Your honor, would you tell this man I’m free."
"I need to take these men back to process them for release," the guard said.
Looking at the men, the judge asked: "Do any of you want to go back?" They all shook their heads and walked out into sweet freedom after twenty-two months on death row.
Free Yet Still a Prisoner
Guilty men on parole have programs to help them find jobs and places to live. These men were given nothing. Their lawyer arranged for some clothing and Ron hitched a ride back to Michigan with the reporter from the Detroit News. The other three returned to California to the biker gang. Within a few years, two of them were killed in gang violence and the third, Doc, had committed suicide.
Ron explains that his own family is pretty dysfunctional so he was estranged from them and thus had no strong support. He found friends to stay with and sometimes lived on the streets. " I did what I could to survive, doing odd jobs and eventually working as a plumber," he explains. "Initially, the rage I carried against those who had hurt me, boiled up within me. I could not sleep at night and was still angry with God. But eventually, I spoke with a nun who changed everything. ‘It’s okay that you feel angry with God,’ she told me. ‘But you need to give everything over to Him.’"
Ron says he did not understand what she was saying."This is more than you can handle," she explained. "Tell God of your anger and hurt and tell him you are giving everything over to him. He will carry this burden for you. But there is one more thing you must do," she added. "You must forgive those who have hurt you."
Ron did not see how he could possibly forgive, but this nun told him: "You will just let them continue to hurt you if you let the anger eat away at you."
Ron went home that night and for the first time in a long time, he spoke with God. "I told him ‘It’s all yours, I can’t take it anymore.’ Then, I told him I was worn out by the anger and sleepless nights. I asked him to help me to do the seemingly impossible: to forgive those who committed such evil against me. ‘I don’t know why you did this to me,’ I prayed. ‘Maybe it was to stop me from the life I was living, but this hate thing is part of what I got. Help me to stop it.’"
By the next day Ron was a different person. He says it was like a boulder that had pinned him down was lifted off his heart. He could finally sleep again. For about a week he struggled with forgiveness, but then it came; slowly and easily. It had once infuriated him that God allowed him to go to prison for something he did not do, but Ron says he now believes that if all that had not happened to him, he would either have been killed or killed someone himself given the life he lived as part of the biker gang. Today, over thirty years after his imprisonment on death row, Ron says he has a greater purpose for having lived through such a nightmare.
Ron travels around the country speaking against the death penalty as part of an organization called Witness to Innocence. He says he feels he can make a difference in the lives of others who are so often forgotten by society. "It’s easy to lose faith when things seem awful but now I know that sometimes it’s these terrible struggles that God uses to build us into the people He needs us to be," he says. When Ron speaks at schools and universities, he urges people to vote for politicians who oppose the death penalty. "I know that I am doing God’s work to respect the life of every human being--work that I would not be doing if I had not been an innocent man ten days away from execution," He says.
Ron explains that he speaks out for everyone on death row, not just the innocent. "God is the author of all life. When people tell me the Bible says: ‘An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth,’ I tell them that is the Old Testament and Moses, not God, said it. That statement was a tribal law of limitation to get war-like men to tone it down and not try to take out the whole clan in retribution. God did not kill Able or Moses after they killed people. There were no prisons back then, so the laws were harsh. In the New Testament, Jesus came to clarify things and taught forgiveness and love."
Ron says further: "I do this now for my three brothers who aren’t here any more and I do it for those who are locked away and forgotten. Knowing that I’m working for God makes me feel richer than anything else this world could offer."
This story appears in the Amazing Grace for Survivors book (Ascension Press) co-authored by Jeff Cavins, Matthew Pinto, my son Luke Armstrong (who wrote this story) and me, Patti.
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To contact Ron for your speaking event: Ronald B. Keine
Assistant director of communications and training
Witness To Innocence cell 586-556-5534