Before Saturday, Ronald Rhodes hadn’t been summoned from his prison cell to see a visitor since 1984.
That was three years after he was convicted of murder in Wichita. For 30 years, Rhodes has insisted he didn’t kill anyone. But no one outside the walls could hear him.
“It would be easier if I was guilty,” Rhodes in the crowded visiting room last Saturday. “But when you’re innocent, you sit in here thinking, ‘What did I do that I’m being punished for?’ ”
Saturday was Rhodes’ 56th birthday. That’s when Rebecca Woodman, adjunct law professor at Washburn Law School, and I went to visit Rhodes. Woodman’s law students have been researching Rhodes’ case and his claims of innocence.
We didn’t plan our visit around his birthday. It was just the first Saturday that Woodman and I could arrange to both go to the Lansing Correctional Facility.
Rhodes said prison was a violent, dangerous place, when he first arrived.
“There was overcrowding, a lot of killing,” Rhodes said. “But it’s gotten better.”
To survive, Rhodes said he couldn’t look at prison as a place like any other. It’s a subculture, he said, where people who don’t follow rules in society don’t change when they come inside the walls.
“It takes distorted thinking to stay in here,” he said.
Rhodes admitted he’s committed crimes. He did a robbery in Washington state when he was 19. He pleaded no-contest to an aggravated battery, which had him on parole at the time he was charged with murder.
But Rhodes wanted to correct a story that appeared in the Eagle during his murder trial in 1981, which said he was on parole for shooting a man over a pack of cigarettes.
“It wasn’t over a pack of cigarettes,” Rhodes said. “I had this really good weed …”
A man stole his marijuana, Rhodes said. They had an argument.
“I saw him reach toward a cushion of a chair and saw the barrel of a gun,” Rhodes said. “I went for the gun, too, and he got shot. I still think if he hadn’t been shot, he would have shot me.”
But he insists he’s not a killer.
“I’ve done some bad things,” Rhodes said. “But if you look at my record in prison, I have not done one violent thing. I’ve gotten written up for having cigarettes, for smoking, for talking back.”
Rhodes admitted being at 630 N. Topeka with Cleother Burrell the night he was killed. Rhodes said his girlfriend, Lisa Silver, managed the apartments. He went to visit her. She wasn’t home but he said he started drinking with Burrell and some other men. They were in Apt. 14, that Burrell shared with a man named Bruce Elliott.
According to Rhodes:
Burrell, who was gay, began flirting with Rhodes. Burrell put his hand on Rhodes leg. Rhodes said he told Burrell to stop several times. Burrell persisted.
“So I hit him over the head with a whiskey bottle,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes went around the corner to a bar. When he returned, Rhodes said he found Burrell on the floor in the hallway. He was still alive but had multiple stab wounds.
“I bent down and he said, ‘Help me,’ ” Rhodes remembered.
Rhodes said he went back to the bar and called 911 for help. He didn’t give his name, because he was on parole
At the bar, Rhodes said he dropped a lighter and it clanked against the metal leg of a table. Rhodes said the bar owner called police and told them he had a knife. When police arrived, they searched him, didn’t find a knife but found an outstanding warrant.
Rhodes said police arrested him on the warrant and later began questioning him about being at the apartment on Topeka. He ended up being charged with murder. Although Burrell had been stabbed 20 times, Rhodes had only drops of blood on his pants, from where he bent over him in the hallway.
At trial,Elliott testified he saw the killing. But when asked if he saw the killer in the courtroom, Elliott said he did not. Later, Elliott returned to the stand. He admitted under oath he was intoxicated. He then identified Rhodes as a man whose picture he’d picked out of a photo lineup.
Rhodes said he was shocked when the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
“I was convicted on the word of a drunk,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said he has spent much time in the prison law library trying to research his case. He’s also spent time counseling other inmates.
“I try to keep the younger ones from getting in gangs, from using the ‘N’ word,” Rhodes said.
He recognizes the world outside is a much different place. He said he knows that from reading Newsweek.
“If I ever get out, I know I’ll need some help adjusting,” he said. “I’ve become comfortable in here.”
Then he paused.
“And that’s what I mean by distorted thinking,” he said.