Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Juan Melendez discusses injustice of capital punishment

Credit: Marin Axtell

“I hope he’s not innocent . . . I hope he’s not innocent . . . I hope he’s not innocent . . .

Whenever Juan Roberto Melendez saw the lights flickering in his cell, that was the mantra he repeated over and over in his mind. After spending 6,446 days on death row in Florida for a crime he did not commit, Melendez began to tell his story all across the country. On Tuesday, Oct. 4, he gave a lecture that delivered a single, powerful message: The death of one innocent man invalidates the entire system of capital punishment.

“It’s all about details, education,” Melendez said in his speech. “People need to know that it does not deter crime. People need to know that it costs too much. People need to know that it’s racist. People need to know that it’s cruel and unnecessary.”

Melendez was brought to campus as a speaker by a joint effort between Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) Sociology Instructor Susan Palmer and Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences Keith Farrington.

“When you have a speaker that comes to a shared event, it in some ways doubles the amount of work you need to do,” Farrington said. “Susan dealt with the large organization that handles the bureaucratic aspect.”

Melendez spoke at both campuses and attended classes taught by both professors.

“It’s important for people to be realistic about flaws in our justice system,” Palmer said. “In this case, I think it’s important for students to hear a personal story, as opposed to just a statistic. To be able to have some level of empathy, that the system in some cases might be flawed.”

Melendez’s approximately 17-year-long ordeal began when he was arrested for armed robbery and first-degree murder in 1984 and convicted after a week-long trial by a mostly white jury based on the testimony of two police informants who cut deals with prosecutors.

“No physical evidence against me,” Melendez said. “On the defense side, I had four witnesses say that the police informant was a snitch who had a grudge against me, but I had a problem: every witness on my side was from the African-American race. When a black man and a black woman testify for the defense, all of a sudden, the credibility is gone.”

Credit: Marin Axtell

Speaking to a crowd in Olin Hall 130 so large it threatened to violate the fire code, Melendez next described the squalid conditions he faced in prison and the friendship of other inmates who helped him survive by teaching him to read, write and speak English.

One of the night’s most harrowing anecdotes came when Melendez related how close he came to committing suicide, near the tenth year of his imprisonment. He began by explaining how his friends on death row would bribe “runners” from the main prison to bring them garbage bags so that they could hang themselves.

“I took that bag, and I made a rope, and then I put a noose in it. Then I looked at my bunk, and I looked at the rope, and I said to myself, ‘I’d better lay down and think about this a little bit more,'” he said. “I fell into a deep, deep sleep, and I start dreaming. In the dream, I’m a little kid again, doing the things I used to love. I find myself on the most beautiful beach in the world, at least to me. Every time I wanted out of there, every time suicide thoughts came to my mind, I would pray to God, ‘send me a beautiful dream.'”

The tale of a good friend’s death due to staff negligence offered a further glimpse into the disturbing realities of prison life.

“There’s a brother on the ground (from a heart attack or stroke) so we tell [the nurse], ‘He’s not breathing! He needs air!’ But telling the so-called nurse to give mouth-to-mouth to a brother on the ground: you’re wasting your time,” he said. “He died in my arms.”

“I wasn’t saved by the system.  I was saved in spite of the system,” Melendez said of the case that finally freed him.

Distraught over the execution of five of her other clients, his longtime attorney handed his case over to a crack legal team, who petitioned for a change of venue based on the fact that the county judge had been Melendez’s first public defender.

Once moved to Tampa County, the case fell into the hands of Barbara Fletcher. After retrieving the case files, Fletcher discovered that the attorney had withheld critical evidence from the court, including a taped confession of the real killer and the corroborating testimonies of 16 witnesses.

Armed with this information, Fletcher wrote a 72-page opinion in which she chastised almost every official involved with the case. Her opinion led prosecutors to throw out the case against Melendez.

“I can honestly say I owe that brave woman my life,” Melendez said.

The lecture ended with a hopeful note, as Melendez described how his fellow inmates applauded as he was released and how he learned to live more richly after being deprived of simple pleasures for so long.

Melendez extended his stay in Walla Walla so that he could attend a dinner in his honor Wednesday evening. Speaking to a group of students from Whitman and WWCC, Melendez predicted that the death penalty would be abolished within the next ten years, and described meetings with recently executed inmate Troy Davis and anti-execution New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

“I told him, you’re the one in power,” Melendez said of Richardson. “You make the changes. I gave him lots of reasons.”

WWCC student Anthony Martinez described being surprised and affected by the speech.

“It was pretty amazing the way he told his story,” Martinez said. “I expected him to tell it sad. He told it in a way like he enjoyed it, and it was cool how he managed to live through it, how he managed to move forward through it.”

The final words of Melendez’s lecture echoed his hopeful prediction, asking the audience to join him in fulfilling his dream of ending the death penalty.

“I have a confession to make: I’m still a dreamer,” he said. “But this dream cannot come true if all of you don’t get involved. You see, you are part of my dream now!”

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    delbertOct 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    powerful, moving, real.