By John Brummett
Juan Melendez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and had done itinerant fruit-picking in Florida, learned English during 18 years on Death Row. He says his teachers were other condemned men. He says they essentially commanded him to learn to communicate with them.
He speaks the language well enough now to be an accomplished public speaker. He travels the country telling audiences why he shouldn't have received the death penalty, how he finally got freed and that the death penalty is beyond fixing.
Last week he spoke to about 125 people at the annual dinner of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The group soon will ask Gov. Mike Beebe - in futility, I suspect - to impose a moratorium on executions.
When Melendez was convicted in 1984 of killing a cosmetology school owner, he knew maybe four English words, and three of them, he says, were curse words. So he sat in a courtroom lacking much understanding of what all those well-attired people and important-looking people were talking about.
The jury was being kept a bit in the dark, too, such as to the fact that another man had confessed to the murder. A man seen fleeing the cosmetology school was not pursued, and police admitted they botched the crime scene.
Authorities preferred to go after the riper target of this Juan Melendez, in spite of the absence of a single shred of physical evidence. It had two witnesses, both dubious. Melendez will admit to hanging with a bad crowd and doing petty crimes.
That one of the two witnesses aspired to be a police informant and was getting spared jail time in exchange for his testimony - well, juries don't get advised of that kind of thing. That would be prejudicial to the prosecution, you see. Never mind that it might be helpful to the man whose day in court it supposedly actually is.
"I thought it was just a procedure," Melendez, 32 at the time of that trial, said in an interview before his speech last week. He recalls sitting there at the defense table assuming he couldn't be in any real trouble, since he didn't kill anybody and the elaborate exercise unfolding before him surely would come to that conclusion.
But then he could understand one thing - the photographs of the victims that were shown the jurors. This was a brutal crime, with a slit throat, three bullet wounds and a pool of blood.
Powerful emotion is one of the fatal flaws in the death penalty. A reasonable doubt that might be applied to a lesser crime becomes less a viable option to a juror determined to try to fashion some form of justice out of such horror.
Then you have the problems with witnesses, since they are human beings possessed of the usual and varying frailties. Some are simply mistaken. Some are simply liars. Some are simply looking for a deal.
Next comes the politically elected prosecutor, whose career perhaps rests on his landing a conviction, since the case is likely his most high-profile, and who is inclined to make his bed with whatever excuses for witnesses he can find.
Throw in the uneven pattern of prosecution - from one jurisdiction to the next, from one race to the other and from one economic class to the other.
When, at 50, Melendez got freed, it was because anti-death penalty legal groups had gained him a new trial. When required to try Melendez anew, the prosecution had no case at all. The confessor had long since died. The old witnesses' stories weren't the same as before. There remained no physical evidence.
This is Melendez' most thoughtful point: Even if a man did the crime, the man we kill is never the man we convicted. Years on Death Row, with only four hours a week spent out in the yard, will change you.
The underlying question - beyond the haunting one of whether we might be putting in the grave an innocent man - is what we're really accomplishing by killing him even if he did it.
John Brummett is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; his telephone number is (501) 374-0699.