HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A man cleared of murder and rape charges after being locked up for two decades made an emotional appeal for millions of dollars in compensation on Tuesday, telling the state claims commissioner about the fear he endured in prison.
Kenneth Ireland was imprisoned at the age of 18 and released in 2009 at age 39 after DNA tests proved that another man fatally beat a mother of four in 1986. He's seeking $5.4 million to $8 million under Connecticut's wrongful incarceration law.
"You never think this is going to happen to you, especially in America," Ireland said during his nearly two-hour appearance. "I figured there was an error being made and that they'd figure this out and it would go away."
He described the terror he felt as a 20-year-old man heading to a maximum security prison notorious for gang violence.
"I was in absolute turmoil. I was telling anybody who would listen there's been a mistake made, I didn't do this. I'm innocent," he said. "I couldn't get anyone to listen to me."
Ireland said his ordeal began when he was 17 and was called to the Wallingford police station to answer questions about the drowning death of a friend a year earlier. Police soon began questioning Ireland about the beating death of 30-year-old Barbara Pelkey.
A SWAT team later arrested him at the sandwich shop where he worked, he said.
Witnesses testified at Ireland's trial that he had admitted committing the crime. Ireland said those witnesses had lied to receive a $20,000 reward, but he was convicted in 1989 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Ireland's mother, Cherry Cooney, told Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. that her son wrote her a letter saying that he would die in prison and that there was no hope.
"As a mother, it broke my heart," she said. "It was a wasted 21 years of his life, a senseless waste."
The claims commission hearing for wrongful imprisonment is the first in Connecticut. James Tillman was released from a state prison in 2006 after serving 18 years for rape and was paid $5 million by the legislature for his wrongful conviction.
Vance said during a break in the hearing that 22 other wrongful imprisonment cases are pending, though they are not as clear-cut as Ireland's claim, which he called a "true innocent." Other cases cite prison terms that extended beyond what they were called for and other claims of miscarriage of justice, he said.
Vance said he doesn't know when he will announce his decision on Ireland's claim.
Attorney General George Jepsen has told Vance he does not object to the compensation sought by Ireland.
In 2007, the Connecticut Innocence Project, which looks into potentially wrong convictions, began reviewing the case against Ireland. Following DNA tests, a Superior Court dismissed all charges against him.
In 2012, Kevin Benefield was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the beating death of Pelkey. He worked at a catering and car business in the Wallingford building where Pelkey worked.
Ireland, who now works as a bookkeeper, said he at first didn't believe that the court set him free.
"No, no, nothing ever good happens to me," he recalled telling his lawyers. "I was convinced I would still die in prison."