Ray Krone’s teeth landed him on death row in 1992.
“The police told me to bite down on a Styrofoam mold,” Krone told University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates in Sociology 441 in October. “I cooperated, but at the time, I didn’t know why that dentist was there.”
He found out at his murder trial, when the prosecutor called on a bite expert to link Krone’s teeth marks to a wound found on the victim. Krone was convicted on the strength of that expert’s testimony – and spent more than 10 years in prison, four on death row. His conviction was overturned in 2002, when DNA testing cleared his name. When he walked out of prison on April 8, 2002, Krone was the United States’ 100th death row exoneree.
Krone appeared as a guest lecturer in Professor Michael Massoglia’s criminology course to bring home lessons about incarceration and the criminal justice system. Massoglia worked with the Innocence Project, a national public policy organization that helps exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals, to bring Krone to campus.
“Books and classroom lectures have a fundamentally important role in teaching students about the historical roots and societal implications of crime,” says Massoglia. “But there is a big difference between reading about wrongful conviction, and hearing from someone who lived it.”
Sociology applies the methods of science to explain the causes and consequences of human behavior. Undergraduate sociology majors at UW-Madison learn to think critically about society’s structure and organization through courses in demography, research methods, social psychology, deviant behavior and more. They may go on to pursue careers in a wide variety of sectors: marketing and communications, health care, government, law, criminal justice, social services, personnel, and more.
Rigorous research methodology helps boost UW-Madison’s sociology department to its consistent top ranking, nationwide. Quantitative research is used to recognize trends and patterns, and produce social statistics. Qualitative research, on the other hand, relies on first-person interviews and experiences to add a rich depth of understanding, insight and context to social theories.
“The people closest to the problem call attention to realities that are invisible to those farther removed from the scene,” says Pamela Oliver, chair of the sociology department. “Qualitative research based on direct observations and interviews is an important part of sociology, as well as an important complement to other kinds of research.”
The most sophisticated sociological research happens at the faculty and graduate student level. For example, the often-cited Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (running since 1957 and led by emeritus professor Robert Hauser) conducts in-person home interviews to assess the accumulation of wealth, psychological well-being, and other “life-quality” issues of Wisconsinites as they age.
The headline-grabbing study of eviction by former sociology graduate student (and 2015 MacArthur Genius grant awardee) Matthew Desmond (M.S.’04, Ph.D.’10, Sociology) reflected Desmond’s immersion in the environment he was studying.
When the approach is applied to undergraduate learning, the impact is often profound. Classroom guest speakers and field trips are common in the program. Last summer, Professor Massoglia took his students on a tour of Wisconsin’s former supermax prison, an experience he says none of them will ever forget. He hoped Ray Krone’s first-person account of death row would have a similar effect. Students’ reactions proved him right. More than 100 students sat silent and spellbound by the story.
“You don’t read much about just how terrible solitary confinement is, and that seemed harder on him than the death sentence,” says Connor Lynde, a junior majoring in history and legal studies. “No matter how many statistics or stories you read, someone telling you how it was makes it much more real.”
Maddie Turnquist, a senior majoring in sociology and philosophy, found herself thinking about the roots and purpose of the criminal justice system.
“In philosophy, we look at the origins of institutions,” she says. “Ray’s story made me think about how the criminal justice system is much more of a competition between prosecutors and defense attorneys, rather than a collaborative search for truth.”
At the end of his lecture on that chilly October afternoon, Krone had a final message for Sociology 441 students.
“All of you will have trials,” he said. “All of you will have hardships. I want you to remember my story. Persevere. Believe. Don’t let the system change you. You change the system.”
The room broke into resounding applause.