By Richard Weizel
HARTFORD Conn. (Reuters) - A Connecticut man whose wrongful conviction on rape and murder charges was reversed after 21 years in prison described his ordeal as a "nightmare" in a hearing on Tuesday before a state commissioner who can award him up to $8 million in compensation.
Kenneth Ireland was 18 years old in 1989 when he was found guilty of raping and murdering a 30-year-old woman. He was released from prison in 2009 after DNA tests exonerated him.
Now 44, Ireland testified before the first hearing of a state commission established in 2008 to review claims of wrongful conviction. He said he had been subjected to daily physical and psychological abuse in prisons in Connecticut and Virginia and was "scared every minute I would die in prison."
The hearing before Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance also featured a video of a 17-year-old Ireland repeatedly proclaiming his innocence in an interview with police detectives. Ireland is seeking $5.4 million to $8 million in compensation from the state.
"Accusing me of raping and murdering a woman I didn't know and never met was the worst nightmare," Ireland told the hearing. "But I wish it were an actual nightmare ... because then I could have woken up instead of spending 21 years in a tiny cell with the most violent criminals who targeted me because I was a convicted sex offender."
The same DNA evidence that exonerated him led to the arrest and 2012 conviction of Kevin Benefield, who had known victim Barbara Pelkey. Benefield was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Ireland's mother, Cherry Cooney, spoke tearfully during the hearing of her son's lost years.
"My son had 21 years of his life taken away that no amount of money can ever replace," Cooney said. "To see your son in prison and watch him suffer and lose all hope he will ever be free is the worst kind of hell imaginable."
Ireland's attorney, William Bloss, said his client was wrongfully convicted based on the false testimony of a couple who claimed Ireland told them he committed the crime after the state offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
State Attorney General George Jepsen said he does not object to the compensation sought by Ireland.
Vance said he will make a decision on the amount awarded to Ireland by the end of the year.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)