Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Exonerated Inmates To Expose Death Penalty Injustices

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 1, 2005

Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon held a rope in his hands preparing to strangle himself in his Florida prison cell, but something held him back.

He lay down and in his sleep he dreamed that he was swimming again as he loved to do as a boy in the tranquil aqua waters of the Caribbean.

“The sun was bright. The sky was blue. The palm trees looked so good from the shore of the beach, and I was right there in the Caribbean swimming. Then I saw … four dolphins … flipping and jumping like dolphins do. And then I looked to the shore and I saw my mama waving at me … I was happy,” he recalled.

He awoke with new hope that one day he would be found innocent, and he flushed the rope down the toilet. A Catholic on Death Row, he had contemplated suicide several times to escape this abyss, but “my Creator would send me beautiful dreams from my childhood and hope that one day I would be free,” he said.

“I had to go back to my roots and to what my mama told me about Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost … The condemned men who didn’t turn to something spiritual either went crazy or committed suicide.”

Melendez spent 17 years, eight months and one day in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, clinging to his faith as he battled the criminal justice system. Twice in 18 years he had visitors, both family members.

But Melendez became the 99th of 122 former Death Row inmates to be exonerated in the United States since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1973. He and 12 other exonerated men gathered for a retreat Oct. 2 in Hampton sponsored by the Witness to Innocence project.

During the retreat the former inmates gained confidence and worked on the skills needed to tell the public their stories. Their hope is to shed light on the critical need for legal reform to protect defendants and to promote a moratorium on use of the death penalty in the United States.

The guest speaker was leading death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote a best-selling book about her Death Row prison ministry, “Dead Man Walking,” and whose new book, “Death of Innocents,” addresses the quintessential, inevitable consequence of the flaws of the system, the execution of innocent people.

She spoke about the systemic flaws in implementing capital punishment, which she believes shames this great nation as a beacon of human rights. Errors have been made repeatedly, she said, because defendants receive poor legal representation or because of racial prejudice, prosecutorial misconduct or the presentation of erroneous evidence. This was the first time she had spoken to a group exonerated from death sentences.

Witness to Innocence is a project of the Moratorium Campaign, which brings to light the crisis of wrongful death sentencing because of these errors—the new moral edge in the death penalty debate. The retreatants gathered in a state that has been at the center of the death penalty debate. As a result of Georgia cases, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972, but then reinstated in 1976 and upheld again in 1987 even as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged inherent racial disparities in its implementation.

But as the new century unfolds progress is being made. In 2002 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded inmates, and in March 2005 ruled against killing juveniles, breaking ranks with countries like Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and Nigeria. In 2004 125 people were sentenced to death, the lowest number since 1973.

Kurt Rosenberg, director of Witness to Innocence, said in almost all the exonerated cases he’s seen there was a rushed quest by the prosecuters for victory regardless of truth.

“There was a rush to prosecute someone who was innocent, despite the fact that there was no significant evidence they were guilty of the crime, a real rush to prosecute these people … for something they didn’t do because it is a very politically charged atmosphere and death sentences are sought to take advantage of that.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops actively supports a moratorium on use of the death penalty and in May launched a national educational campaign for schools, parishes and other Catholic groups and individuals. It focuses on the cry for justice and on building a constituency for life, while also emphasizing the church’s commitment to victims’ families.

Wearing a black T-shirt with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley and a gold chain with a Virgin of Guadalupe medallion, Melendez said he was incarcerated largely because evidence that pointed to the real perpetrator was withheld.

Melendez, who was born in New York and grew up in Puerto Rico, described how his state-appointed attorney handed over to the prosecutor a tape he had obtained with a confession from the real killer. The prosecutor withheld that and several other documents of exonerating evidence and relied largely upon testimony from a jailhouse informant. Melendez’s conviction was upheld in three appeals before the Florida Supreme Court.

He was finally released in 2002 after the long-forgotten transcript of the taped confession was discovered, and it came to light that the real killer made statements to no fewer than 16 people either directly confessing or stating that Melendez was not involved.

“My case was based on no physical evidence, but on the testimony of two questionable witnesses who made deals with the state in benefit of (leniency for) the crimes they committed,” said Melendez. “I had an alibi. I had a witness who corroborated the alibi testimony and I had other witnesses claiming that the witnesses against me had a grudge against me. The exculpatory evidence (the prosecution) had it all the time; they just didn’t turn it in.”

Later at the retreat Melendez gathered in a circle with other men, appearing like ordinary Americans in a support group with a spiritual director. They introduced themselves, some along with their spouses, and listened to each other’s horrific experiences.

Sister Prejean, 66, who travels constantly to speak on the issue, spoke to the men about picking up their lives after “you’ve been through the severest trauma a human being probably could go through—to be condemned when innocent by your own country.”

She encouraged them in their mission to raise the consciousness of America about the injustices of the system.

The Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille described in her genteel New Orleans accent the death penalty culture in her home state of Louisiana, where some attorneys running for public office boast of how many death penalty convictions they’ve won and those who win a death sentence case have a tradition of going out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

“It shows what happens when political gain enters into the system,” she said.

She noted that most people aren’t directly affected by the death penalty and don’t know the truth.

“The public doesn’t know what’s going on (and doesn’t) reflect on the death penalty. Thurgood Marshall said if Americans were educated about the death penalty then they wouldn’t believe in the death penalty because they’d see what it is,” she said.

“It’s easy to kill a monster … that’s part of the death penalty process, if you dehumanize and then it’s unseen. Nobody sees how it goes day in (and) day out on Death Row.”

She recalled the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell who was convicted of murder in 1986 despite highly circumstantial evidence. For 12 years O’Dell sought DNA testing on the forensic evidence, which he claimed would exonerate him, but the courts refused. He wasn’t able to get a state hearing on DNA evidence because in Herrera v. Collins in 1993 the Supreme Court ruled that even if a defendant has new evidence of innocence, the person has no right to a federal hearing and must abide by the state’s statutory cutoff date, which in Virginia was three weeks. After his execution the state destroyed the evidence. One man who testified against O’Dell in the trial later confessed to Sister Prejean that he had lied on the stand.

She affirmed that every person has dignity and deserves a fair trial and adequate defense.

“By your standing before this nation you are upholding your dignity not simply because you’re innocent but because … even the guilty are better than their worst sin,” she said. “You’re going to be the ones to help the American people understand that we’re never going to make it work.”

Over 80 percent of all executions are in the South, while the 2003 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South has the highest murder rate. Use of the death penalty displays a racial bias. Eighty percent of those executed have killed a white person; yet over 50 percent of homicide victims are people of color.

Sister Prejean explained that the Supreme Court states that one can only have a new trial on the basis of inadequate counsel if it can be proven that it affected the case’s outcome, which is very difficult to do.

“You are also a sign of hope to the people who are sitting in prison now who are innocent,” said the sister. “You did more than climb Mount Everest. You sustained your integrity when all the signals around you were that you were disposable, inhuman. Just to be in your presence, it’s an honor for me.”

She encouraged them to find a faith group that can help them to go inward and to remain honest with themselves and not internalize their anger into depression.

“Spiritual practice means we know how to stand in the center of our souls in truth before God and we know how to hear the voices inside that operate out of fear and paranoia, the voices inside that call us to love. If we don’t know how to be silent we can never hear them. We don’t want to stop because the hurt is there, the wound is there. It will come up in the weakest moments, that feeling that I’m worth nothing.”

But as they struggle, these freed men are profoundly convicted in their mission to go forth and tell their stories and educate the public.

Melendez said the first “miracle” in his case was when his attorney became a judge making it a conflict of interest for him to hear the case. The case was taken over by Judge Barbara Fleischer. His former attorney pointed the judge to Melendez’s file in his old office, and there she found the taped confession of the real killer. Judge Fleischer then issued a court order demanding the prosecutor hand over all case information, where there was a transcript of the taped confession and 16 more documents that corroborated the taped confession. She wrote a 72-page opinion in which she overturned Melendez’s conviction, chastised the prosecutor for withholding “crucial” evidence pertaining to the credibility of the state’s two critical witnesses and set forth in meticulous detail the “newly discovered evidence,” including numerous confessions and incriminating statements made by the real killer to friends, law enforcement officers, investigators and attorneys that substantiated Melendez’s innocence.

Melendez’s response to the misconduct: “It happens all the time. You’ve got to remember that it happened in a town in Florida in which the KKK used to hold parades and burn crosses in black neighborhoods … My jury was 11 whites, one African-American, no Hispanics.”

When he was called out of the prison to be told of his exoneration he just figured the prosecutor had appealed the ruling for a new trial. A woman began asking him “silly questions” like where he would live and work, and he responded, “They don’t have no jobs on Death Row.” She then told him the news.

“I feel like the (cartoon) character with a sledge hammer who hits the other one in the head and the knot comes straight up and stars start coming up around him and he’s in a state of shock, but smiling. That’s how I was, in a state of shock, but smiling,” said Melendez.

In an interview, Sister Prejean said that prosecutorial misconduct can involve making a deal for key testimony with an informant in prison or withholding a police report and other relevant information or DNA evidence.

“They squelch that because they got their man and they’re going to be about winning,” she said. “There’s no accountability for prosecutors and that’s part of why the system is so corrupt—and to use the egregious things that they do like the jailhouse informers, the withheld evidence, police reports that point to another suspect … They’re seldom censored, much less are criminal charges brought against them. And that’s partly why these mistakes keep being made.”

Prosecutors are required to turn over evidence that could be favorable to the accused, but the defense has no assured way of getting it from them. Of the more than 500 documented cases in which innocent people have been convicted in the past century, “prosecutorial misconduct” is one of the most frequent causes of the miscarriage of justice, she writes in her book. She also reports that 90 percent of criminal cases are decided out of court in plea-bargaining, where some prosecutors use the threat of the death penalty to obtain confessions.

Lack of sufficient public defense for poor people unable to afford lawyers is another major shortfall. The American Bar Association has set standards for the appointment, performance and compensation of counsel for indigent prisoners, and no states have met them, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Because of these and other problems, the ABA has also called for a moratorium on use of the death penalty.

Rosenberg said the lack of competent representation “is obviously a critical component” of the problem as are the court procedural rules that prevent cases from being reopened due to new evidence.

“Procedural rules need to be reviewed and to look at the reality of what’s happening, that people are being sentenced to death and probably in some cases end up being executed despite evidence of their innocence,” he said.

Rosenberg believes it’s critical for the public to hear the stories of the exonerated from Death Row and arranges for them to speak at churches and colleges and to civic groups.

“The American people need to be more aware that (too many of) their citizens are being convicted and sentenced not because they are guilty of murder, but, in many cases, because they’re poor and did not have adequate legal representation or the color of their skin. My motive is to provide an opportunity for the public to hear this message that is incredibly compelling and it gives the public a better sense of the reality of the death penalty when they can hear these stories.”

Sister Prejean also believes sentencing is too arbitrary. While the Supreme Court stated that only the most heinous crimes deserve the death penalty that is very relative as when one person is murdered their loved ones are devastated. While prosecutors claim the death penalty provides justice for families of murder victims, actually only 2 percent of murderers are executed, said the sister. She believes the question of life and death belongs in God’s, not man’s, hands.

“Even humility would dictate that we leave it in God’s hands, that we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have a way of getting to the truth, we don’t have a system of justice, a system not tainted by politics, self-aggrandizement of people trying to further their political career,” she said. “It’s never going to be good enough, pure enough, free of racism and prejudice to be able to handle this.”

In addition, she pointed out that capital cases are on average two to three times as expensive as comparable, non-capital cases, money she believes would be much better spent on preventative community programs. Among many findings supporting this, the Kansas Performance Audit Report found in 2003 that capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-capital cases, including the costs of incarceration, and the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission found in 2002 that the total costs of the death penalty exceed the complete costs of life without parole sentences by about 38 percent.

“Morals are in the economics, and when you look at the death penalty it’s extravagantly expensive to have it in place,” she asserted. “For all the resources that are put into that, a real anti-crime program would be to work with at-risk kids, to have community policing, to help kids stay in school, to work with them in school so education is meaningful for them, to help them see it’s related to their lives, what they can do after that, and to help people with drug addictions.”

Regarding the safety of society, 37 states now have a life without parole sentence, including all death penalty states except New Mexico.

She believes part of building a culture of life and strengthening the moral fabric of society is to not resort to violence to punish, whether for murder or terrorism, but rather through restorative justice to sentence up to life imprisonment without parole.

“It’s a belief that by the use of force we can hold things in place and exert our will in the world, and the Gospel of Jesus is exactly the opposite. Only by knitting together the fabric of community, where everybody can live a life of dignity and is treated with dignity, where there are housing, health care, jobs, education so they can have a chance to live,” she continued. “Martin Luther King is the example in this country of where we had social change and it was led by Christian principles … We have to deal with the social fabric. Just like the bishops have said, if you want peace work for justice.”

This forthright sister—who describes in her book challenging Justice Antonin Scalia on his death penalty position—is grateful for the bishops’ campaign, as while the general support for the death penalty according to a 2005 Gallup poll is around 64 percent, “among Catholics it’s below 50 percent because the bishops are lining up and beginning to do their job of educating the people. And what’s most hopeful, that the more Catholics go to church and are in Catholic educational institutions, the more they tend to not support the death penalty.”

Father Georgia Lundy, SJ, of Baton Rouge, is director of the Moratorium Campaign, which Sister Prejean founded, and has worked on the issue with her for over 25 years. Among his projects, he works collaboratively with the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project where 15 Jesuit high schools and colleges around the country have been performing or reading the play based on the 1996 Academy Award winning movie “Dead Man Walking,” an adaptation of Sister Prejean’s book. The play project is now open to all schools.

The campaign encourages states to halt executions and study the disparities in how the capital punishment system works in practice. One state that did this is Illinois where former Gov. George Ryan halted executions in 2000 after 13 inmates on Death Row were found innocent, some even by the work of journalism students at Northwestern University “following really basic leads,” said the priest. Gov. Ryan instituted a study commission that called for 85 reforms.

“The fact that we have 121 people exonerated from Death Row is telling us a lot about the fact that the system is far from foolproof even on the question of guilt, and when the penalty of death is irreversible we don’t believe it’s responsible for us to trust a system that is so error-prone,” said Father Lundy. “The big issue for Gov. Ryan, even more than error, was that he became convinced that the top issue is fairness. What the Illinois commission found is that a lot depends on vagaries of geography. Somebody gets charged with capital punishment in one area and not in another area, (there are) no uniform standards. He found tremendous disparity on racial grounds.”

Father Lundy, a former university administrator, also noted that defendants are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer after the initial trial, even for appeal, and nonprofit law firms fill in the gaps and do a lot of post-trial work with limited money.

“A lot of people who have not gotten good representation to begin with … are not guaranteed a lawyer after that,” he said, adding that some states do provide some funding for the nonprofit firms.

“It’s a paradigmatic issue. We have all these national ideas about equality and justice, and how are we willing to kill people in a system not only error-prone but in which the playing field is unequal? It’s a symbol of other justice issues in American life, and it’s a poignant symbol because we’re talking about the government killing its own citizens.”

For Catholics, he recalled the message of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin about the church’s defense of all human life being a seamless garment from that of the innocent unborn child to that of the gravest sinner.

“This is certainly a constituent element in the pro-life movement. You can’t be pro-life and be in favor of executing,” he said, even more so as system flaws come to light. After all, “one of the Catholic pillars of faith is the redeemability of sinful human nature. That’s why Christ died for us, to redeem us.”


For more information on the bishops’ campaign to end the death penalty visit, or visit the Death Penalty Information Center at or Witness to Innocence at