Wallingford man tries to move on from wrongful conviction nightmare
Wallingford man tries to move on from wrongful conviction nightmare
April 28, 2014 02:34PM
By Andrew Ragali
Mentally, Kenneth Ireland didn’t age during his 21 years in prison. In 1989, he was convicted of the 1986 rape and murder of Barbara Pelkey in Wallingford. DNA evidence exonerated Ireland and he was released in 2009.
Imprisoned at 18 years old and released at 39, “I refused to age,” Ireland said during an interview last week. As soon as he was released, “all my friends and family threw me a 19th birthday party,” he said.
While Ireland has the look of a man in his mid-40s, his mannerisms are comparable to that of a 20 year old. It’s hard to form a family after two decades in prison, Ireland said, so he lives the life of a bachelor. He has an apartment, but would not say where. Ireland said prison food was horrible, so he has developed a compulsion in which he eats purely for fuel, not enjoyment. If something takes longer to cook than eat, Ireland said he doesn’t bother, sticking with canned food or cereal. He often eats out as well. Ireland said he hates doing dishes.
As a hobby, Ireland said he rides a motorcycle. On a whim, he took a two-week vacation in October to backpack through Europe. The trip really wasn’t planned, he said. Starting in London, he had two weeks to get to Rome, where he bought his return ticket.
“I live the bachelor life,” Ireland said.
It’s as though he is continuing from where he left off in 1989. But Ireland isn’t without the concerns of an adult, especially in terms of financial security. For his wrongful imprisonment, Ireland is seeking between $5.475 and $8 million from the state.
Ireland filed a damages claim on March 31 with the state Office of the Claims Commissioner. Since the filing, Attorney General George Jepsen has said the state will not dispute Ireland’s claim. Jepsen’s ruling means the state “found no mistakes in our interpretation of law and factual evidence,” said William Bloss, an attorney who voluntarily took on Ireland’s compensation case. The state has acknowledged that the monetary range Ireland is seeking is consistent with the $5 million award James Tillman received in 2007. Tillman was falsely accused of rape in 1989 and spent 18 years in prison.
The state has until April 30 to respond to Ireland’s claim, at which time a hearing will likely be scheduled, Bloss said.
If awarded what he seeks from the state, Ireland says he will not “be rich by any means.
“It’s not enough to sustain me my entire life,” he said.
Asked if he has any goals or aspirations that he would pursue if awarded millions of dollars, Ireland said, “I’ll have to continue working.”
Since 2011, Ireland has worked in the business department at the Capitol Region Education Council. Ireland said he is grateful for the job and needs to keep it for the health insurance. Bloss pointed out that Ireland hasn’t accumulated any savings in prison. He also hasn’t paid into Social Security, meaning he won’t receive as great a payment, Bloss said. Any award that Ireland receives will be greatly diminished through state and federal taxes as well, he added.
Ireland said he was on the right track prior to his imprisonment. He had recently earned his high school diploma and was accepted into the National Guard. Ireland said he had hoped the military would be a stepping stone to aid in paying for college.
‘A scary feeling’
At the time of Pelkey’s murder, Ireland was 16 years old. In March 2012, Kevin Benefield was convicted of the rape and murder of Pelkey and sentenced to 60 years in prison. But immediately after the murder, Benefield wasn’t considered a suspect.
Days after the murder, which occurred in the office of the R.S. Molding factory on Capital Drive in Wallingford, Benefield was quoted in a Record-Journal story about how quiet the industrial area was at night, calling it a “ghost town.”
Struggling to find a suspect in the case, Wallingford police offered a $20,000 reward in 1987 for information on the murder leading to a conviction. After the reward was announced, Wallingford residents John Card and Mary Lou Flaler came forward with information that Ireland and another man told them they had beaten Pelkey to death. They denied the reward had anything to do with their cooperation. Both eventually testified against Ireland. While DNA evidence from the crime scene was inconclusive, Ireland was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
While sad about Pelkey’s death, Ireland said he didn’t show intense remorse in court because he never knew her. People took that as a sign he was cold-blooded. Police and the state prosecutor conveyed this message and everyone believed it, Ireland said.
“You’re branded as guilty, but it’s all a farce,” Ireland said. “There was a series of really bad decisions made, starting from the reward being offered. You’re giving people a motive to find me guilty. That’s the only aspect of law where we pay people for testimony.”
The jury never had a chance to hear Ireland’s side of the story. His public defender decided against having him testify.
“I wanted to testify,” Ireland said, adding that at the time he was ignorant of the law so he went with his attorney’s recommendation.
There was a difference in opinion then about the merit of having a defendant testify, Bloss said. The thought process was that if you call your client to the stand, the burden of proof is shifted and “you have to prove you’re innocent,” he said, even though you are innocent until proven guilty. But Bloss said it makes more sense to testify because, “the way people make decisions, they like to hear both sides of the story.”
After his conviction, nobody — including family members — doubted his guilt, Ireland said. Wallingford police hailed the conviction as a victory. People saw Ireland as a sick man for raping and killing Pelkey. Even in prison, people avoided him for his crimes, Ireland said.
The difference between freedom and imprisonment was only a small strand of DNA that a crime lab had no reason to keep after Ireland’s conviction, Bloss said. In 2007, the Connecticut Innocence Project reviewed Ireland’s case and requested DNA testing. Ireland had requested the analysis of DNA evidence in 1990 while appealing his conviction, and again in 1994. DNA samples were all but consumed during retesting, but results were still inconclusive. While reexamining the case, Bloss said, they found paperwork that said all DNA samples had been consumed.
“It’s a scary feeling,” Ireland said. Ireland took it upon himself to look through old court transcripts and found mention of a glass slide containing samples from the scene. Bloss called the crime lab, which is located in Meriden, and requested that they look for the slide. The lab “had no reason to keep it,” Bloss said, but a technician was able to locate the sample in a storage locker. Bloss immediately sent a detective to the lab to secure and test the sample that eventually exonerated Ireland.
“I didn’t believe it,” Ireland said, recalling his emotions when he heard he would be leaving prison. “My thought process was, ‘I’m in prison and I’m going to die here.’ ”
Ireland said he holds no animosity toward those who spoke against him. Wallingford police have a whole new batch of officers who weren’t involved with the case, he said. While the Connecticut Innocence Project looked into his case, Ireland said, a Wallingford detective was extremely helpful. “One detective really went above and beyond,” he said. While helping Ireland collect evidence, the detective was criticized by his co-workers for helping a convicted murderer. So the detective started helping him off-duty, Ireland said.
The same prosecutor who convicted Ireland on behalf of the state, Michael Dearington, also represented the state while Ireland’s case was reexamined in 2009.
But Dearington “realized there was a mistake” and was very helpful in providing evidence from the original trial, Ireland added. “I’m extremely grateful for the police and prosecutor for cooperating,” he said. “The same system that made this mistake did what they could to remedy the mistake,” Bloss said.
While grateful, “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with the justice system anymore,” Ireland said.
Doing hard time
In Ireland’s claim to the state, his prison time was described as an “unimaginable nightmare.”
“There are a lot of over the top, violent, extremely insane things that happen in prison,” Ireland said last week.
The claim mentioned how Ireland witnessed a man burned alive in his cell. Ireland declined to talk about the incident further. He has received counseling since his release. Ireland also lost part of his finger when a weight was dropped on his hand. Gang violence in prison was at its peak in the 1990s, said Ireland, who witnessed several riots.
He was sent to Somers state prison after his conviction, and later was transferred to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, and then to MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield. In prison, Ireland said, you must carry yourself in an aggressive manner to deter challenges.
“People are like water,” Ireland said. “They take the path of least resistance.”
Those who offer the least resistance are abused physically and mentally, he said. To avoid such abuse, “I got in many fights,” Ireland said.
Ireland said he thought he would carry his aggression with him outside of prison, but as soon as he was released, “a switch went off in my brain.”
“I’m just going to relax and enjoy my life,” he said. “I don’t even get angry, argue or partake in drama.”
Immediately after his release, Ireland feared being taken away and put in prison again, according to his claim. He avoids crowds and has intense anxiety, said Lisa Elswit, a clinical social worker who has treated Ireland. When he first left prison and moved into an apartment, he would sleep in a closet and barricade the door, she said.
But Ireland painted a different picture during last week’s interview, mentioning how he often goes out with friends for dinner. He recently ate a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Through his compulsion to finish food rather than enjoy it, “I was done before my friends could butter their bread,” Ireland said.
Prison food is so bad, he said, “I wouldn’t send it to the deepest famine ridden place in the world.”
Ireland said he has gained about 40 pounds since leaving prison.
In pop-culture, it’s often noted that prisoners always maintain their innocence, no matter the severity of their crime. This isn’t exactly true in real life, Ireland said.
“There are some terrible people in prison,” he said, adding that some would admit to their crimes and complain because they wish they had done worse. “A vast majority of those in prison did it. You can’t dwell on why they’re there,” he said.
While he encountered heinous criminals on a daily basis, “on a day-to-day personal level, you become friends at that moment in time no matter their past,” Ireland said. “I can’t condone their crimes, but I met some people in prison that I will be friends with forever, regardless of what they did.”
Prison is basically a men’s club, Ireland said. People joke around with each other and laugh, but once the laughter stops, there is violence.
Ireland said he avoided talking to or befriending prisoners with a history of sexual assault, especially people with crimes against children. Other prisoners actually avoided Ireland since he was convicted of sexual assault. It’s prison politics, he said. If an inmate is seen talking to someone convicted of sexual assault, they too are targeted.
Everyone he befriended was imprisoned for murder, Ireland said. But they are all paying their debts to society and many are scheduled to be released soon, he said.
After rehabilitation in prison, “I judge them as being a good person at this stage of their life,” Ireland said.
Many of the skills Ireland learned to get his job were part of vocational programs in prison. Out of boredom, he picked up an accounting book in prison and read it. That led to advanced accounting and business classes while still in prison. Now Ireland performs accounting and bookkeeping for the educational council. Many of his coworkers have complained recently because their office is moving to a location with smaller cubicles, Ireland said. But smaller cubicles don’t bother him, he said, especially after living behind bars with a cellmate.
“It’s like living inside a toilet,” Ireland said, because the toilet is only inches away from your bed.
Since his release, Ireland said he has taken college courses and would love to continue doing so, but he does not really want a degree.
“I just have one of those minds that just need to learn all the time,” he said, adding that some of his interests include photography, world history and astrophysics. His dream job would be to work on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland researching the Higgs boson particle.
Getting used to life outside of prison was difficult, Ireland said. A big adjustment was smart phones, which are pretty weird, he said, because “all of human knowledge is in that little phone.”
Paper money seemed smaller when he got out of prison. While he was an inmate, cigarettes were the only currency until they were banned in prisons. The prison economy then turned to cosmetics like soap, shampoo and other comforts, he said.
Asked what the one message he most urgently wanted to get out to the public was, Ireland said, “donate to Connecticut public television.”
Watching the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network “really got me through prison,” he said. While he had television in prison, it wasn’t cable. Daytime television isn’t his cup of tea, Ireland said, but public television had documentaries and other programs that fed his need to learn. Ireland said he would always watch the network’s pledge drive and wish he could donate. When he was released, Ireland said, he immediately volunteered with the network.