Standing in front of a classroom at the UNC Law School was a short man in a Bob Marley T-shirt. He spoke with a thick Spanish accent that reminded me of my parents. It was difficult to watch him as he joked a little, because it only made you feel angrier for what happened to him. That the lightness in one’s spirit could be preserved despite undergoing such malice was a miracle to me. The speaker was Juan Melendez, a former death row inmate.
Melendez was in North Carolina earlier this month to tell us his incredible story. This is a story that North Carolina desperately needs to hear as we discuss and debate legislation regarding a moratorium on executions. Melendez is a survivor of the criminal justice system in Florida. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death, even though the prosecuting attorneys had a taped confession from someone else.
I could feel the tense and angry emotions of everyone in the room as we all learned that the confession had been in the possession of both the prosecuting and defense attorneys before the trial began. Melendez spent 17 years, 8 months and one day of his life on death row, all because the attorneys involved were either too lazy or hateful to allow the evidence into the case.
Melendez was right to say that he is free not because of the checks within the system, but in spite of the system itself. He harbored no hate in his heart for the things that had been done to him. He had forgiven the people who failed him long before he even left death row. I was shocked to see more compassion and forgiveness in this man than the people who so vehemently argue to keep the death penalty.
He is consistent with all the other former death row inmates I have met. They all have forgiven the system and provide an example for those of us who cannot imagine being in their shoes. That fact alone makes me want to see more accountability on behalf of those who work in the criminal justice system.
I was glad to see Melendez in the front of that room. My heart was happy that he had the spirit to share his story with us. Listening to him, my thoughts ran to the many times I stood outside of Central Prison in Raleigh, hoping and praying that something would change the fate of the person scheduled for execution. There is always an uncomfortable silence when the white truck leaves the prison shortly after 2 a.m. My stomach is always tight from knowing that another murder has just taken place. Thank God Melendez never ended up in one of those white trucks.
In all my many trips to execution vigils, I have rarely seen supporters of the death penalty present. Whether a death row inmate is innocent or guilty of the crime, the least death penalty supporters could do is have the backbone to look at what they want in the face. Death penalty supporters should sit with Melendez and tell him that the system is worth the benefits. Better yet, they should tell him that after they wrongfully serve 17 years, 8 months and one day of their lives. I hope they feel that justice was well-served despite the inaccuracies.