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Listener Commentary: Joan Healy

By Joan Healy

Buffalo, NY – While I was in Florida this spring, I had the opportunity and privilege to hear Juan Melendez speak. Juan Melendez is a man who spent almost 18 years on death row for a murder he didn't commit. I had read accounts in papers about persons being released after years when finally found innocent, but I wanted to hear someone in person relate his story.

Before going to the talk I was opposed to the death penalty. After the talk I was vehemently opposed to the death penalty. The talk and the question and answer period that followed showed in stark reality the many flaws in our justice system. A system so rife with flaws should not presume to put people to death.

First let me say I was amazed that someone who had been so wrongly treated didn't hate the world and want to take revenge. Mr. Melendez only wanted to educate people to the complete wrongness of the death penalty. His vocation now is speaking to groups to help spread the word and get people excited enough to call for the cessation of this inhumane action that does nothing to deter crime.

During the talk we were told that before the trial began the prosecutor had the confession from the real killer who had been a police informant. The police did not want to lose their informant. Someone had to be substituted who could be found guilty and Juan happened to be that person. He spoke of his time in prison and the others on death row who became his friends. He told of seeing some of them killed by the state, the same state that says it is wrong to kill.

Over the years many attorneys believed his story and worked to help free him. He said near the end of his imprisonment, his attorney said that she was just physically unable to do any more. The case was tearing her apart but she promised to turn her files over to someone else who would work for his release. This new team was able to find the confession that had not seen the light of day until they unearthed it. This proved his innocence and he was finally set free from death row.

After the talk Juan answered questions. He was asked if he knew of others who were innocent and he said yes. What he said next sounded like a very wise statement. He said some were innocent and some were guilty, but those who were guilty usually had led unbelievably horrible lives. He thought it would be a good idea to have psychiatrists and psychologists talk to them and learn from them how their behavior could be prevented in others instead of killing them.

Then he was asked what happened to the prosecutor that had the confession all along and this answer threw me for a loop. He replied that the prosecutor was still practicing. I did not know that prosecutors are immune from prosecution. Later I spoke to a friend who is a lawyer and had been a judge. He was not at all surprised and said, This happens all the time. Evidence is withheld from the defense. It is lost or misplaced. Hearing that I was having a hard time reminding myself that this was still the United States.

One of the final questioners asked what happened when he was released from prison. He told us he was given a new shirt and pants and $100.00 - just the same as anyone else released from prison. This after 18 years of his life had been taken from him. I shook my head because somewhere I thought I remembered saying and "liberty and justice for all." But maybe I was mistaken.