Juan Meléndez spent seventeen years, eight months and one day on Florida’s death row for a murder he didn't commit. From the moment he was jailed, his mother in Puerto Rico began praying three rosaries a day before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He says that kept him from going insane and just maybe helped lead to his release.
"I say thank God for that, but it took too long, God," the comedy-prone Melendez told an audience at Lewis and Clark Law School March 6.
He was part of a panel discussing the death penalty and wrongful convictions. Since 1973, 142 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. On average, the exonerated prisoner spent 9.8 years behind bars.
"I'm angry, but it's how you use the anger," Meléndez explains. "You can use it in a positive way to help other people. I'm angry at the system. You just have to try to keep hope high."
Meléndez crossed himself as he spoke about a friend he met on death row, a man he was convinced was innocent but who died by lethal injection.
The talk came as Oregon lawmakers are considering a resolution asking voters to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Catholic leaders have spoken out uniformly against the death penalty since the mid-1990s, when Blessed Pope John Paul II said modern forms of incarceration had rendered executions unnecessary to protect society. Opponents of the death penalty, in and out of the church, say the practice poses too high a risk to innocent life. The United States is one of few nations on the globe that still allows it.
"You are part of my dream now," Meléndez told the crowd, which included many law students. "As long as this great state of Oregon has the death penalty, there will always be a risk of executing an innocent man."
Also on the panel was Greg Wilhoit, a ironworker who was released after five years on death row in Oklahoma. He gets miffed when people hear about his release and say the system worked.
"I didn't get out because of the system. I got out despite the system," Wilhoit says. An idealistic lawyer took up Wilhoit's case and worked for free. Because Oklahoma's appeal system goes relatively quickly, the defense had to work quickly.
"On Oklahoma's death row, they're going out the back door as fast as they're coming in the front door," Wilhoit said.
Wilhoit is featured in the non-fiction book by John Grisham, The Innocent Man. Some argue that the number of overturned convictions is relatively small. But Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark, says the 142 cases signify many more that never came to light.
Kaplan says improper or invalid evidence causes many wrongful convictions, in addition to "bad lawyering." Meléndez tells the story of his public defenders, one who showed up drunk and the other who fell asleep during hearings. But almost half of the death penalty convictions that have been overturned collapse because of faulty jailhouse testimony — other convicts speaking out to reduce their own sentences. Such accounts are notorious in the legal world, Kaplan says.
Tung Yin, another Lewis and Clark professor, says there are many very good public defenders, but they have too big a workload. They may juggle scores of cases simultaneously, as opposed to private attorneys, who can team up on a single case for months.
Yin puzzles over the dismissive attitude district attornets show toward DNA evidence. He figures they would like the scientific tool, because it often confirms guilt. Yin described instances of misbehavior by prosecutors, who on occasion withhold evidence that would clear a defendant in order to win a big case and secure re-election from a public that adores those who are tough on crime. Yin suggests that prosectors should be liable to lawsuits in cases of intentional deception; law now protects them from being sued, no matter how egregious their misbehavior. The panel was organized by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Oregon Justice Resource Center
Meléndez and Wilhoit also spoke at Oregon State University, Willamette University, and Western Oregon University.