After spending 17 years, eight months and one day on death row for a crime he did not commit, Juan Roberto Melendez was exonerated in 2002.
Melendez visited UC Santa Cruz on Oct. 30 to share his story and to encourage students to rethink their stance on capital punishment.
The event “Wrongfully Sentenced to Death” was sponsored and hosted by a wide array of campus organizations, including the Chicano Latino Resource Center (El Centro), the Legal Studies Department and the Student Union Assembly.
Rosie Cabrera, director of the Chicano Latino Resource Center, said the event was meant to educate students on the most important aspect of the death penalty.
“We hope that people have an opportunity to understand our justice system, learn that mistakes are made and that, in-fact, race matters,” Cabrera said.
During his introduction of the event, death penalty expert and professor of psychology Craig Haney listed what he called the “Four Pillars of Capital Punishment,” which he said society uses to validate capital punishment. These pillars include the notion that capital punishment is necessary, that it punishes only the very worst offenders, that executions are painless and that innocent people are never sentenced to death by the court system.
“Based on my contact with the system, all four of them are myths,” Hanley said. “None of those things are true.”
Only 17 states have thus far abolished the death penalty. On Tuesday, California voted down a repeal of the death penalty striking down Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty. Since capital punishment was introduced, 1,307 people have been executed in the United States and 141 people have been exonerated from death row.
Melendez is the ninety-ninth person in the United States who has been exonerated from death row for a crime he did not commit. Arrested in 1984, he spent seventeen years in the Florida State Penitentiary, convicted of the first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Melendez described how he felt powerless within the legal system because of his unfamiliarity with the English language.
“I was naive to the law, naive to the language,” Melendez said.“This is the kind of English I knew at that time — if I said five words in English, believe me my friend, they would have been cuss words.”
Melendez said the courtroom lacked an ethnically diverse jury during his conviction of robbing a white male.
“[They] picked 11 whites, one African American person, no Hispanics,” Melendez said. “And I’m Hispanic.”
The main evidence the prosecution presented against Melendez was from a police informant who claimed Melendez confessed the murder to him and a police report that misidentified the killer based on cosmetic details — a tattoo and missing tooth — that happened to match Melendez. After deliberation by the jury, he was sentenced to death by electric chair.
Melendez said his experience has shown him how the death penalty system is inherently racist and unjust.
According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, as of Nov. 1, the current death row population is 41.8 percent black, 12.4 percent Latino, and 43.2 percent white.
Results of the 2010 U.S. census reveal how ethnic minorities compose a disproportionate number of death row inmates when compared to the po
pulation at large. According to the census, 75.1 percent of all Americans are white, 12.3 percent are black and 12.4 percent are Latino.
Melendez said the death penalty is also a heavy financial burden on society. An updated assessment by Judge Arthur Alarcon and professor Paula Mitchell states that costs associated with the death penalty in California have totaled over $4 billion since 1978. If Proposition 34 passed, it would have reduced the sentences of those remaining on death row to life without parole and California would have been projected to save $170 million per year and $5 billion over the next 20 years.
As a last appeal, Melendez was assigned a new legal team that uncovered the real murderer’s confession tape. He was transferred to a different county for retrial in front of a new judge where he was proven innocent.
Since his release, Melendez has worked to educate the public about the flaws in the death penalty system. He is a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing, aiding them in their mission to raise awareness about the negative impacts of the death penalty.
At the conclusion of the event, Melendez summarized what he felt was the biggest problem with the death penalty.
“The most important thing people need to know is this, as long as the great state of California has it — or any state, any country, any nation — there will always be a risk of executing an innocent one,” Melendez said. “We can always release an innocent man from prison, we have no problems with that, but we can never, I repeat never, release an innocent man from the grave.”