Crime & Courts

August 9, 2011

No parole for convicted murderer in case questioned by Washburn students

A man who has contended he's not guilty of a murder that's kept him in prison for the past three decades will have to spend at least one more year behind bars.

A man who has contended he's not guilty of a murder that's kept him in prison for the past three decades will have to spend at least one more year behind bars.

Ronnie Rhodes learned Monday that the new Prisoner Review Board had denied him parole.

"It's almost like they want to keep me in here until I admit to committing this crime, and I just can't do that," Rhodes said in a telephone interview Monday from the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Rhodes' 1981 Wichita murder conviction gained new scrutiny after students at the Washburn School of Law said they found problems with the evidence and the legal procedures surrounding his case.

Those included questionable eyewitness testimony in the stabbing of Cleother Burrell in an apartment at 630 N. Topeka.

That witness, Bruce Elliott, was covered in blood when picked up by police and had shared the apartment with Burrell. At the trial, Elliott told a jury Rhodes didn't commit the stabbing.

The Washburn analysis also questioned whether Rhodes received adequate legal counsel or a thorough review by Kansas appellate courts.

Evidence that could now be tested for DNA, either to show Rhodes' guilt or bolster his claims of innocence, cannot be located by Wichita police.

Rhodes, meanwhile, remained behind bars, after being denied parole for an eighth time.

"It's simply a travesty of justice that Ronnie would be denied parole after 30 years, given a trial record so full of holes as his is, and evidence that could prove his innocence once and for all has, unbelievably, been destroyed, lost, or remains unaccounted for," said Rebecca Woodman, adjunct professor at Washburn.

Woodman stepped from a researcher's role to representing Rhodes at his parole hearing last month. She presented her students' findings to the review board.

"A system that does not, or will not, take such facts into account, in the face of an increasing number of known wrongful convictions and knowledge of the mistakes that contribute to them, is a broken system," Woodman said.

Rhodes presented nearly 20 letters recommending him for parole written by mentors from inmate programs and from correctional officers at Lansing.

Gov. Sam Brownback appointed the Prisoner Review Board to replace the Kansas Parole Board as a cost-saving measure. It falls under the Department of Corrections.

The review board declined to discuss details of its decision Monday, a department spokesman said.

But while the process is new, the results are familiar to Rhodes.

He said the board ordered him to seek a minimum-wage job with two private businesses run inside the prison walls, and remain free of disciplinary reports. Rhodes has not received reports for infractions since March 2010.

He will face the parole board again next summer.

Those were the same conditions the parole board gave him in 2000, he said.

"I met those, then when I went back, they gave me more conditions," Rhodes said.

In 2008, the parole board gave Rhodes the condition of quitting smoking. He did.

"It's like every time, they come up with new reasons for turning me down," he said. "It's frustrating."

Rhodes said he has held a job throughout his years in prison. But jobs offered by the industries inside the prison are limited.

"They aren't required to hire me," he said.

Rhodes said he filled out an application on Monday.

"I'm not giving up," he said.

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