PHOENIX — According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 24 Arizonans have had wrongful convictions overturned since 1991.
Each one takes countless amounts of money and time. But a willing prosecutor can take years off the process.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel announced the creation of a Prosecution Integrity Unit to investigate claims and police use of force after a conviction.
Adel was appointed to the position after her predecessor Bill Montgomery was elevated to the Arizona Supreme Court in October 2019. She is now running for the position as a Republican and says she’s evaluating how the office operates.
“This is one of those areas where we wanted to make sure the process was better,” said Adel.
Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor that questioned Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, will be heading up the unit.
“In the past, it would go to a line level prosecutor. This is bringing it more centralized, so that we can have one person reviewing all of those claims,” Adel said.
But post-conviction reform advocates wonder if enough will be done to truly change how the process currently works.
Ray Krone knows better than most, the crucial role prosecutors can play in either keeping wrongfully convicted people locked up or setting them free. Krone, who endured two trials and was sentenced to die, spent 10 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Adel was not involved in Krone’s prosecution.
“Originally, my trial was in 1992. And just lasted three and a half days,” Krone said. "I had a court-appointed attorney and was convicted based on bite mark evidence.”
He was dubbed the "snaggletooth killer" due to bite marks found on the body of Kim Ancona, who was found fatally stabbed in a Phoenix bar that Krone frequented. After his first conviction was overturned on appeal due to the prosecution’s late disclosure of critical evidence, Krone was tried and convicted a second time. However the judge sentenced him to life in prison rather than death.
“He said he had lingering residual doubt to my guilt. He wasn't sure I did it so he sentenced me to life. That was five more years of fighting this system,” Krone said.
But in 2002, after all of his appeals were exhausted, Krone’s attorney used a new law to compel MCAO to turn over remaining evidence for DNA testing.
“Of course it was objected to by the prosecutor Mr. Levy (former prosecutor Noel Levy) there in Maricopa County who objected to it. Said it was a wild goose chase,” Krone said.
The testing of the DNA evidence ruled out Krone as a suspect and identified another man who was later convicted of the crime.
Krone was exonerated and co-founded Witness to Innocence with advocates against the death penalty. He also works with prosecution integrity units around the country.
The Arizona Justice Project, which takes on post-conviction cases says a lot of good can be done with an integrity unit, and is hoping it will work with organizations like theirs to provide access to evidence more quickly.
“To get all of the documents and the police reports, and the crime lab reports, to accessing physically being able to access evidence,” said Executive Director Lindsay Herf.
She says right now, that process could take months, or even years.
Adel’s Democratic opponent Julie Gunnigle questions if the changes will be enough to make a real difference.
“I see it as another, you know, smoke and mirrors attempt to continue the legacy of Bill Montgomery and make surface level reforms that don't actually get the job done,” Gunnigle said.
Krone says the real test will be how much the office commits to staffing and funding.
“I would believe somebody would have to go do some footwork, some legwork to question people, to find evidence to look into previous witnesses for truthfulness,” he said. “So I mean, it would take a few people to be effective at it, but you have to start somewhere. I'll give them credit for trying.”