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URBAN LEGEND: A crusader for the convicted

No skin showing, a prison guard tells a young woman dressed in designer ripped jeans.

No skin showing, a prison guard tells a young woman dressed in designer ripped jeans.

Its a busy Sunday inside the visitors waiting room at Monroe Correction Facility, a rambling, century-old brick prison that broods over the small town of Monroe, Wash.

Glammed-up girlfriends, parents and young mothers carrying toddlers and sippy cups are lined up to pass through a metal detector. Ken Klonsky, a retired teacher and writer, is in the lineup, but hes not waiting to visit an inmate; hes here for the book club.

Every third Sunday, the Vancouver man drives down the I-5 in his Prius to attend a session of the Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) reading group. All but one of book clubs members have been convicted of murder.

Klonsky, 63, began volunteering with the group a few years ago after meeting one of its members, Atif Rafay. Today, in a classroom inside the education annex, just past the razor-wired prison yard, the group will discuss a book selected by Rafay, a former West Vancouver resident and Cornell University student now serving three consecutive 99-year sentences for murdering his family in 1994.

Rafays selection, Vladimir Nabokovs Invitation to a Beheading the story of a man sentenced to death for an imaginary crime is particularly poignant, says Klonsky, who believes strongly in Rafays innocence. Atif Rafay is incapable of that crime.

Klonskys group, Innocence International, a Canadian-based advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted led by Dr. Rubin Hurricane Carter, took on Rafays case three years ago.

After he retired from teaching, Klonsky, a lover of opera, classical music and literature, never planned to spend his Sundays behind bars, or use his free time to read trial transcripts and police reports and correspond with convicts. That changed in 2004 after he received an unsolicited letter postmarked from a New York prison.

The letter-writer was a young man named David McCallum, who had been convicted of murder during a car-jacking in Brooklyn when he was 16. In prison, McCallum read a magazine article Klonsky wrote about Carter, the ex-boxer imprisoned for nearly two decades for a murder he didnt commit. (Carters plight was made famous in the Bob Dylan song The Hurricane and later turned into a movie of the same name starring Denzel Washington.)

McCallum desperately needed somebody outside the prison walls to look at his case. Klonsky couldnt ignore him.

So he started sending stuff. Copious amounts of stuff, says Klonsky, a tall, angular man with a dry wit.

After reading the courtroom transcript, Klonsky agreed with the guilty verdict. But then he watched the videotaped interrogations. A confession is very easy to get from a teenager. They were almost farcical. One took 11 minutes; the other four minutes. And this convicted them for 25 to life. Theres no question [McCallum] was not a good kid that way. But he never killed anybody.

So, that is what made me think it could happen to my son. It could happen to anybody. It could happen to me.

For the past eight years, Klonsky, who speaks to McCallum twice a week, has doggedly tried to help him get a new trial. During that time, Klonskys family has gotten to know the prisoner: When Klonsky and his wife visit their home city of New York, they regularly visit McCallum and when their son was getting into trouble in his teens, McCallum counselled him.

McCallum was Klonskys first innocence case. Since then, hes culled through a stack of pleas from inmates, but the group must be ultra-selective taking one wrong project could destroy its credibility.

Klonsky became interested in Rafays case after watching Mr. Big, a documentary about the controversial RCMP sting tactic that ultimately led to the conviction of Rafay and his friend Sebastian Burns, and countless other targets. Right away I got the feeling again the false confessions stuff. Its incredibly easy to get people to confess. The problem is that theyre not always guilty.

Shortly after, Klonsky and Carter sat in a prison visiting room peppering Rafay with tough questions for three hours. Rafay, jailed for the past 17 years, told them everything he knew.

Ever since, Klonsky has been deconstructing the case, recently writing a paper on the crime titled The Presumption of Guilt: The Wrongful Convictions of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay. For me there are two fundamental issues: one, that there is no evidence that connects them to this murder. And the second is that the alibi is actually very, very, strong.

As Rafays advocate (hes not permitted to also work with Burns), Klonsky knows him better than most do. In the office of his Kits condo, he pulls out a large envelope stuffed with dozens of handwritten letters stamped with a Washington State Department of Corrections insignia. Although much of the pairs correspondence focuses on the case, it often delves into other subjects, such as philosophy, classical music and movies. Klonsky also assists Rafay with getting magazines, academic journals, books and CDs. Most recently, he helped Rafay get an essay on freedom published in the award-winning Canadian magazine The Walrus.

This is the worst case I have ever been involved in because Atif lost his family, and his freedom.

Of course, Klonsky concedes that hes one of the pairs few supporters. Still, if youre trying to prove your innocence from a prison cell, Klonsky is the man you want in your corner. This is a high-stakes, full-time job for him.

Every single day, David and Atif, says Klonsky.

As a teacher working with troubled kids Klonsky earned a reputation for rarely giving up on his students. His tenacity and patience may soon be rewarded. Just weeks ago, he was brought to tears after learning that McCallums murder case is going to be reopened.

Sometimes you feel like you want to give up (but) you feel if you do, they will. Look how long it takes.

Hes equally optimistic about Rafay and Burns, who will have their appeal heard in July. I think they are going to get a another trial.

Ironically, the very trait that makes Klonsky such a valuable ally on the outside also has an imprisoning effect on him.

Im not actually very good at what Im doing because I cant distance myself at all. I have this vision of being stuck in a prison, the doors closing, and I havent done anything. Its the ultimate nightmare. Not a day goes by where I dont have that vision of what its like to be in a prison.

Two hours after disappearing behind a sliding iron door at Monroe Prison for the book club, Klonsky emerges. Hes upbeat. It was a stimulating discussion. For many of the prisoners, Nabakovs novel helped shed light on their own situation.

[Atif] was very happy to see me, he adds.

Postscript: Recently, the murder of a prison guard at Monroe Correctional Complex forced the cancellation of the book club. If the club is reinstated, Klonsky plans to return as a volunteer.