Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Speaker returns to discuss death row

By: Alice Miller, Staff Writer
Issue date: 10/31/07

Almost exactly one year after his last appearance on campus, Juan Melendez returned to UNC to speak to about 25 students about his experiences on death row.

Melendez, who served almost 18 years on death row before he was found innocent and freed from a Florida prison, stressed in Tuesday's "Wrongfully Convicted" program that innocent people often receive the death sentence.

"My story is not unique," he said. "It happens all the time."

He enthusiastically described the positive effects of his imprisonment, such as learning to read, write and speak English better from friends who became closer to him than family.

He explained how those people, unlike the guards who watched him, made him feel like a human being.

But he compared these ups to the downs of witnessing unfair racial treatment among the prisoners, of the suicides of death row inmates and of never knowing how much time he had left to live.

Melendez was the 99th death row inmate to be freed in the U.S. To date, more than 120 innocent people have escaped death row before their executions.

The UNC Law Death Penalty Project sponsored the event both last year and Tuesday night.

Jennifer Karpowicz, president of the club and a third-year law student, said she was happy to have Melendez return.

"(It's) important for people to hear that our system is imperfect," she said.

While in prison, Melendez went through stages of feeling enraged, betrayed and afraid. But he kept a positive attitude, which he said was a key factor in maintaining his sanity and his will to live.

He said he attributes his positive spirit to "lots and lots of beautiful dreams," as well as the continued support of his mother and aunts from Puerto Rico and letters from his pen pal supporters located around the United States.

Some of the audience members Tuesday night were undergraduate students from professor Donna LeFebvre's criminal law class.

Mona Mohajerani, a senior political science major, said Melendez's speech brought a personal angle to the death penalty, which is often discussed as a political issue.

"You hear a lot about it, but I have never put a face to it," she said.

Elie Hessel, a junior psychology and political science double major, also said Melendez's experiences hit home to her when she realized people on death row are "real people with personalities and families."

The Death Penalty Project has many events throughout the year to increase awareness about death penalty issues. Events vary from visiting speakers, such as Melendez, to fundraisers to volunteering.

To end the evening, Melendez called for the audience to get involved to end the cycle of injustice in the political system. He said he wants to help others who find themselves in the same situation he was.

"Law is made by human beings, carried out by human beings," he said. "We are human beings, and we make mistakes."

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu

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