Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Death Penalty Never Takes a Holiday

The Holidays and the Death Penalty December 17, 2008

Holidays can be an especially painful time for those who are caught up in the death penalty system, whether they are death row inmates, family members of death row inmates, family members of those who were executed, or murder victims' families. For them it means a permanently empty space at holiday family gatherings where their loved one would ordinarily be.

Several years ago, Juan Melendez knew that pain all too well, as he spent Christmas after Christmas on death row, an innocent victim of the death penalty system. Here is his story:

The Death Penalty Never Takes a Holiday

By Juan Melendez

The December holidays are a period of mixed emotions for death row inmates awaiting execution, knowing that any Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa could be their last.

That’s how it was for me. I was on a Florida prison’s death row for a crime I did not commit. There was no physical evidence linking me to the killing of a beauty salon owner I never met. My conviction was based on the testimony of an informant with a criminal record. I couldn’t help in my own defense; at the time I couldn’t read or write in English. Three times the Florida Supreme Court upheld my conviction and death sentence on appeal. It took 16 years after my conviction for another set of attorneys to discover the taped confession of the man who committed the crime. If I had been on death row in Texas or Virginia during those 16 years, I would not be alive today.

The holidays on death row were the worst time, they were terrible. I was lonely. Death row was real quiet during the holidays. I wanted to be with my family. I missed my family, but I didn’t get any visitors. I can only imagine how my mother and the rest of my family felt spending Christmas without me.

There was a woman who would come to the prison with a church group, and they would hold a holiday get-together. They brought us Christmas cookies, and Christmas stockings, but the prison stopped that. Sometimes the prison would give us Christmas dinner with turkey and things like that, but it was still sad.

The hardest part was Christmas Day. We inmates used to be able to stick our hands out through the bars of our cells, but then the prison put chicken wire over the bars so we couldn’t do that anymore. Then we tried sticking our hands out through the slot in our cell doors where the guards would slide our food trays into our cells. I’ll never forget the Christmas when the guards came to each of our cells and put locks on the slots so we couldn’t open them and stick our hands out. At each cell as they put the lock on, a guard would say ‘Merry Christmas.’ It was cruel. When they came to my cell and told me ‘Merry Christmas’ as they locked up my slot, I said ‘Merry Christmas’ back to them.

I could have been released sooner than I was. The judge ruled in my favor, reversing my conviction and death sentence on December 5, 2001. I could have been home in time for Christmas with my family. But the prosecutor waited until the last minute to drop the case on January 3, 2002. So there I was, spending my 18th Christmas on death row.

Juan Melendez left prison with $100 in compensation from the state and no apologies. Today, he is a public speaker, a human rights activist, and a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Board of Directors.

No comments: