Thursday, March 29, 2007

Back to the beginning

CARLISLE- The last time Juan Melendez was in Carlisle, he was about to start his descent into hell. On May 2, 1984, Melendez, who was then a migrant worker who worked the orchards of Cumberland County, was arrested for a murder someone else committed. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death in Florida.

Last night Melendez returned to Carlisle for the first time since his arrest and told his story to a crowd of more than 70 people at Penn State Dickinson School of Law. The event was co-sponsored by the ACLU chapter at DSL, the Latino/a Law Student Association, the Black Law Student Association, the Amnesty International USA chapter, and Books 2 Prisoners.

Melendez was convicted on the testimony of two "witnesses." One was a police informant, aka a snitch, who claimed that Melendez had confessed to him. The other "witness" was the alleged co-conspirator, who struck a deal to testify against Melendez and was given two years probation.

The trial started on a Monday. By Thursday, Melendez was convicted, and by Friday, he was sentenced to death.

During his talk, he described the conditions on death row. The jail was infested with rats and roaches. Mealtime was always an adventure. Meals were placed in a slot in the cell door, and it was a race to see who could get the food first, the inmate or the rats and roaches.

"Breakfast? Forget it," Melendez said. If you weren't awake to get it, you weren't getting it, he added.

His experience on death row nearly led Melendez to suicide. He was severely depressed and even acquired the materials he needed to hang himself. When he was ready to go forward, he thought, 'I better think about this some more.'

Melendez was exonerated and released in 2002 when his new attorney discovered a taped confession from the real killer. The tape had been in the possession of both the prosecutors and the original defense attorney one month before Melendez's original trial. The judge threw out the conviction and chastised the trial judge, the district attorney, and the original defense attorneys in a 72-page opinion.

"I was not saved by the system," Melendez said. "I was saved in spite of the system."

Last night Melendez was clear about his feelings on the death penalty.

"The worst of all is when the government kills," he said. "Believe me, (more death row prisoners) are innocent."

Melendez encouraged the audience to join him in fighting capital punishment.

"The problem with the death penalty is it's about education," he said. "It's about the details. We've got to teach people about it. We've got to teach them it's cruel. We've got to teach them it's racist. We've got to teach them it's not a deterrent to crime."

The ACLU of PA encourages community groups, schools, and anyone who can possibly do so to host a talk with a death row exoneree. These talks can be arranged through our ally, Witness to Innocence.

Andy in Harrisburg

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