Former death row inmate talks to students

by Ana Ceballos

Courtesy of Michael Peddecord
Courtesy of Michael Peddecord

A former death row inmate sentenced to die by way of electric chair spoke to students at the Agape House last Wednesday.

On Jan. 3, 2002, after spending nearly 18 years on Florida’s death row in a rat and cockroach-infested 6-by-9 foot cell with just a single blanket to get him through the nights, Juan Melendez, 59, became the 99th U.S. inmate to be released from death row.

According to Melendez, a Puerto Rican, his sentence was based on a racist judgment of 11 Caucasians, one African American and no one of Hispanic ethnicity. There was no physical evidence against him and the court required merely a week to sentence him to death.

“I remember the judge complaining,” Melendez said. “It bothered him that my case was taking too long.”

It was 16 years after his conviction of alleged first-degree murder and armed robbery that evidence in the form of a taped confession of the real killer surfaced, and it was later discovered the prosecutor had deliberately hidden the proof from Melendez’s public defender at the time of his first trial.

According to Michael Peddecord, a semi-retired San Diego State public health professor, it is important to raise awareness and educate students of the system’s flaws.

“If we want to prevent crime this is not the answer,” Peddecord said. “(The) death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment, and it costs less.”

California is one of 34 states with a death penalty and has had 13 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court enacted life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1976. There have been no executions since 2006 because of concerns of conscious asphyxiation that the lethal injection may cause. There are currently 697 inmates on death row in the U.S.

When addressing the risk that the death penalty brings to innocent people, Melendez said, “A man can always be freed from jail if he is proven innocent, but one can never be returned from the grave.”

Religious interference with political issues is a constant battle with the abolishment of the death penalty, and morality has become a major issue in this argument.

“For me, this is not a religious issue,” kinesiology junior Jason Nicholson said. “I see it as life being a right and not a privilege to people, regardless of what someone did.”

Another attendee was enlightened by Melendez’s words.

“I honestly didn’t have a stand before and I wasn’t very informed,” religious studies sophomore Jessie Duran said. “ His testimony made me think of those who are constant-

ly discriminated and it is true that innocent people are always at risk of dying in vain.”

As Melendez took a final breath to finish his testimony, he said, “When I first walked out of there, all I wanted to see was the moon and stars, walk on grass and dirt, and I also wanted to talk to some beautiful women.”