March 2, 2007
Former death-row inmate wants to abolish penalty
by Joseph Kenny, Review Staff Writer
Juan Melendez lists a number of reasons why people should support abolishing the death penalty.
But the best reason is one he has experienced. He knows that an innocent person is at risk of being killed by any state that has the death penalty because he is one of those people, he told an audience at St. Louis University last week.
|Anti-death penalty arguments offered|
As Juan Melendez fights for the abolition of the death penalty, he focuses on injustices he saw in his own case.
Included is the risk of the death penalty being imposed on innocent people, the almost exclusive application to the poor and its disproportionate application on the basis of race and ethnicity.
A summary of the arguments includes:
Innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death.
The death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily.
Scientific research indicates capital punishment is not a deterrent to homicide or other violent crimes. States without the death penalty have lower homicide rates.
The death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment.
Many family members of murder victims don’t want the death penalty and actively oppose it.
The United States is the only Western country that still imposes it.
The vast majority of religions and mainline faith groups oppose the death penalty, including many leaders of the Catholic Church. • Alternatives to the death penalty exist.
Melendez’s Voices United for Justice Project urges people to visit www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
In 2001, Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned the conviction. She noted there was no physical evidence which connected Melendez to the murder and that additional information attacked the credibility of the state’s key witnesses’ testimony.
Evidence that was not presented at the trial showed that three witnesses provided an alibi. Another man had been seen at the home of the murder victim on the night of the homicide, had been wearing bloody clothes and admitted to other witnesses that he had killed Baker.
"The evidence also helps to substantiate the defense theory that someone other than the defendant committed the homicide," the judge wrote.
The St. Petersburg Times reported that prosecutors withheld evidence from defense lawyers. A tape that emerged contained the confession of the real killer, now deceased, who said Melendez was not present.
"Check the record. It’s all in black and white," Melendez said of those who might doubt his innocence.
Surviving 17 years on death row, knowing he did not commit the crime, tested Melendez, a Catholic. "Without God I never would have made it. I wanted to commit suicide. But God sent me beautiful dreams. That gave me hope that one day I would be out of there, that I would be free."
Melendez was interviewed by the Review while in St. Louis Feb. 22 for a talk at SLU about his experiences. When he was released from prison Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death-row inmate in the United States to be released since 1973.
Now, 123 people have been let off death row. Another 1,062 have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated, he said. "Only God knows the (innocent) ones who did not have the luck I had," Melendez noted.
Catholic News Service recently carried the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted of a brutal 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old near Baltimore. Sentenced to die in the gas chamber, Bloodsworth was the first person to be exonerated by DNA testing. In 2003, another man was identified as the killer. He pled guilty and is serving a life sentence.
On death row, Melendez said, "I was like a little kid who is learning to walk. I’d walk, fall down and get up again. Every time I had an appeal and it was denied, I took a step down. Sometimes I lost hope but I was able to pick it up again."
He is thankful for his appeals attorneys who believed in his innocence and that the case eventually came before a judge who took the time to study it carefully. Her 72-page opinion chastised the prosecutor, law-enforcement officers and the defense lawyer, he said.
As an indigent man who at the time did not speak English, he was at the mercy of the court, he said.
"Most attorneys who deal with death-penalty cases are appointed by the state. They don’t have enough experience, and they have too many cases. They don’t have funds for crime investigators, while the prosecutors have the resources. The death penalty is arbitrary, racist, costs too much and doesn’t deter crime," Melendez said.
He has travelled the country to share his story and speak about the death penalty. He works in construction in New Mexico for a man who gives him time off to pursue the cause. He also spends time in Puerto Rico counseling high-risk youth.
Many people on death row accept God or change for the good, he said. "We are not killing the same people who committed the crime because people change and redeem themselves. I don’t say let them go. They committed a crime and have to pay for it. Put them in prison where they can counsel those who one day will get out."
Released from prison with nothing but a pair of pants, a shirt and $100, Melendez chose the path of forgiveness.
"You either can hate them the rest of your life and be miserable or you can forgive them and go on with your life. When you forgive them, you’re helping yourself."
Similarly, he said, the death penalty does not provide healing. Only after forgiving, he said, can someone start to heal.
He said he appreciates the Catholic Church’s teachings against the death penalty, and he pointed to statements from Pope John Paul II. "We eventually will win. I just hope it will be in my lifetime. We have won some battles. They no longer can kill young ones and the mentally retarded. It’s all about education."