From Altar Boy to Death Row: One Man’s Story of Survival

The following is by a death row exoneree named Ron Keine. Ron works for Witness to Innocence, an organization FAN supports for it’s mission to abolish the death penalty by empowering exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones to speak about their experiences.


Pat Ameel and Ron Keine

Pat Ameel and Ron Keine


When I was a young man, I was an altar boy at our local Catholic church in Michigan. Although I assisted the priest in his duties at mass, I was not working for him, I was working for God. God was my friend, and I talked to Him often and relied on Him for guidance. My father and mother were absentee parents. God was there for me 24/7.


As I got older, I slowly grew away from the church and God. I went my own way. I fell into a life of violence, getting into trouble and joining the baddest motorcycle gang in California. I was at home there. These were my people. I was in that gang for a few short years when I ended up on death row in New Mexico in 1974 for a murder I did not commit.


I spent several months in a little barred cell as my lawyers jockeyed with the prosecutors and investigators while preparing for my trial. I felt confident that I would be going home soon since I was innocent. I believed that the American justice system was the best in the world and it simply does not make mistakes. As I look back, I now feel embarrassed for my naiveté.


But then I heard the jury say, “Guilty as charged.” This can’t be. This isn’t the way the system is supposed work. As I sat on my bunk in that little cell on death row I was in shock, hurt and very angry. I was not supposed to be here. I decided to call on an old friend.


“God! Why did you let this happen to me?”


The God I thought I knew would never let this happen to me. I then swore an oath: “I will never, ever talk to you again on this side of these bars.” And I kept my word. Even as my execution date got closer, I kept my word. As death seemed eminent, I could not even pray, I could not say an act of contrition. I made that stupid oath. Stubbornly I kept my word.


I was nine days from my execution when the real murderer experienced an epiphany while strolling down the street in Charleston, South Carolina. The man who committed the crime that I was accused of walked into the nearest church and told the priest that Jesus just came into his heart, and then confessed to the murder I was about to die for. I was exonerated in 1976, and I walked out of prison a free man.


So God had not abandoned me after all. So God was saving my life to do work bigger than myself; to abandon my previous lifestyle choices and commit myself to do deeds that would have a positive impact on humanity.


Since 1998 I have dedicated my life to ending the death penalty. I believe God put me through my wrongful conviction so that I can go out and talk about it and stop it from happening to other people.


So I now work for Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors to be the most powerful and effective voice in the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States. Through public speaking, testifying in state legislatures, media work, and active participation in our nation’s cultural life, our members are helping to end the death penalty by educating the public about innocence and wrongful convictions. WTI also provides an essential network of peer support for the exonerated, most of whom received no compensation or access to re-entry services when released from death row. If your church, college or community group is interested in hearing an inspirational and unique story like none they’ve ever heard, give us a call.


Published in: on May 1, 2015 at 10:18 am  Comments (1)  

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