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Presumed Guilty: Pastor and the prisoner

During a long project, you never know where you're next bit of information will emerge. Sometimes, it's just from a chance phone call. The first week of June, night news editor Kevin McGrath forwarded me a message, left on the main newsroom voice mail.

"I'm looking for Ron Sylvester," the woman's voice said. "I wanted to talk to him about the Ronald Rhodes case."

Janet Weiblen is a pastor in the Kansas City area, who also works with "Reaching Out from Within," a prison ministry, which helps inmates learn about non-violence. Inmates participate in a variety of activities (PDF), including visiting terminally ill, crocheting lap blankets for nursing homes and raising money for domestic violence shelters.

Weiblen met Rhodes four years ago through her "Reaching Out" ministry at the Lansing state prison.

She’s the first one to tell me she believes Rhodes.

“My gut is he’s innocent," she said.

Weiblen said she worked with Rhodes for two years, before he told her he didn't commit the murder that has kept him in prison for 29 of his 55 years.

Weiblen has worked with prisoners for years and said she doesn't put up with lying.

"I have one rule: you can tell me anything, but you lie to me once and we're done," she said.

Weiblen has seen prisoners trying to pull one over on her. She doesn't think Rhodes is one of them.

“This may sound arrogant, but he would not con me on this," she said. "He doesn’t have anything to gain by that, and I don't give him any slack."

Weiblen calls Rhodes "Ronnie." She visits him just about every week. Rhodes calls Weiblen "my sponsor … my mentor" in emails to me from prison.

When I first contacted Rhodes through electronic messaging, he didn’t respond until March, when I received a letter hand written in ball-point pen on yellow legal paper and sent by U.S. Mail.

"I don't use the computer often, because for a lot of years I had no expectancy of receiving contact from anyone on the outside," he wrote.

Rhodes was not only convicted before forensic DNA testing, he went to years before email, or the Internet, became a routine part of life.During the past two months, he's become more comfortable with the electronic mail system. But he knows if he ever gets out, he faces a world much different than he remembers.

"I am ready for the challenge of living in another environment other than prison but I am a bit afraid of the prospect nonetheless," Rhodes said in an email on June 24.

Then he added:

"I DID NOT KILL MR CLEOTHER BURRELL. I am not a murderer. I do not possess that kind of heart nor have I been able to adopt such behavior being locked up in such a violent place."

It was the first time he'd told me he didn't do the crime.

Rhodes said his only hope for freedom is through the Kansas Parole Board.

After his 1981 sentence, Rhodes had to serve 15 years before becoming eligible for parole. He had been on parole at the time of his arrest in 1981, and that's haunted him at his hearings.

Rhodes has been turned down for parole seven times.

On his last visit to the parole board in 2008, the parole board told him he needed to quit smoking (PDF).

(Read previous posts in this series)

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