For most of his adult life, Kenneth Ireland said he believed he would die in a Connecticut prison, serving time for a vicious crime he did not commit.
During a Tuesday hearing, Ireland told state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance, Jr. that he had convinced himself he would be killed in prison rather than have his hopes of exoneration dashed repeatedly during his 21 years behind bars.
“I was resigned I was going to die in prison, either of old age or more likely, in a violent altercation,” he said.
Ireland was eventually exonerated, thanks to the Connecticut Innocence Project, which re-tested DNA evidence from the 1986 rape and murder of Barbara Pelkey. The evidence pointed to another man and Ireland was released in 2009.
By then, Ireland had been behind bars a long time. He was 18 when he was arrested at work, still wearing his Subway restaurant uniform. He was 39 by the time he walked free from a courthouse in New Haven. Michael Lefebvre, an attorney who worked on the Innocence Project, was with Ireland in a different restaurant the day he was exonerated.
“In this restaurant there was a large mirror and as he stood in front of this mirror, [Ireland] just starred. He said ‘I didn’t recognize the old man in the mirror,’” Lefebvre said.
Ireland testified Tuesday before the claims commissioner, who is weighing a claim from his attorneys. The claim tries to assign a monetary value to all the time Ireland lost in prison and all the pain and suffering he endured while he was there. They are recommending that the state compensate Ireland at between $5.5 and $8 million.
The state is not objecting to the range of compensation outlined by Ireland’s attorneys. It is in line with the amount awarded in 2007 to James Tillman, a man who served more than 18 years in prison before he was exonerated.
During the hearing, Ireland recalled much of his experiences before, during, and after his time in prison.
He watched as his attorney, William Bloss, projected an interrogation video from 1987 onto a large screen in the hearing room. The video depicted a 17-year-old Ireland as he learns from Wallingford police detectives that they suspect him of the murder and rape.
“This is like everyone’s worst nightmare, being accused of a murder,” Ireland tells the detectives in the video.
During the hearing, Ireland listened to emotional testimony from his mother, who visited him frequently while he was in prison. Early on in his sentence, he wrote her a letter after some tests failed to turn up evidence to support his innocence.
“It was the saddest letter I’ve ever seen in my life. It pretty much said ‘I’m going to die in prison. There is no hope and there’s just nothing left.’ As a mother, it broke my heart and I can only imagine how he felt,” she said.
Ireland told Vance that his two decades in prison were marked by violence and constant fear. His tenure behind bars stretched over periods of intense gang violence in the 1990s. And he said his status as a young, convicted sex offender made him a target for the other inmates.
“When you’re convicted of a sex offense against a woman, or even worse against a child, the other prisoners feel that they have every right to prey upon you because of the despicableness of the crime,” he said.
When members of the Innocence Project finally called to tell him he would likely be released, Ireland said he refused to believe them. But since getting out, he said he has tried to take in the world, which has been overwhelming at times.
“It’s been amazing. The first year was an absolute whirlwind. Everything was surreal. My mind was on overload taking in the information,” he said.
Depending on what the Office of the Claims Commissioner recommends, Ireland’s claim may need to be considered by the legislature. In 2007, the legislature voted to award Tillman $5 million in compensation, which former Gov. M. Jodi Rell later approved.
As he closed out Tuesday’s meeting, Vance called Ireland’s story “truly amazing.”
“I’m sorry that you had to go through that,” he said.