Speaking out for justice
All photos Kaley Soud/Catalyst
“Something very wrong is happening in our world. Innocent people’s precious lives are being stolen and destroyed by our criminal justice system. These tragedies occur far more often than most people realize. Corruption, human error and bad practices all lend themselves to the phenomenon of wrongful conviction. Corruption and error are inherent; bad practices are not. We must demand the adoption of well known but oft disregarded safeguards, such as double-blind line-up protocols. And when corruption is at fault, the responsible actors must be brought to account. Absent the aforementioned, cases like Juan’s and Jamie’s will continue to be routine. They spent a combined 53 years in prison for other men’s crimes and only won their freedom through a combination of luck and dogged determination. Most wrongly convicted inmates are not so fortunate.” This is the testament of Juan Melendez’s principle investigator and New College alumnus Rosa Greenbaum (’93) about the purpose of their visit to New College on April 13.
With a board of lawyers behind him and a crowd of students and community members before Melendez told the story of his 18 years spent on death row for a murder that he did not commit. “My mama didn’t raise no killer,” he told his audience as he relived his plight in a flurry of gesture and expression that transported the audience into his tale.
Alongside Melendez was James Bain, another man falsely convicted who spent 35 years in prison before DNA testing proved him innocent. This occurred after a nine year old boy was raped and released by a man claiming to be James Bain. Bain was summarily wrongly arrested and sentenced based on the testimony of a traumatized child and the convictions of the prosecutorial staff.
Both men tell their stories in order to display the faults in the criminal justice system and the suffering that ensues for not only can an innocent man be falsely convicted, but easily and avoidably so. Melendez’s case, based on circumstantial evidence and unreliable witnesses, was sentenced by prosecutorial misconduct and pre-determined bias as much as “justice,” and it almost resulted in the death of an innocent man. For 18 years he lived on death row with roaches, rats and “monsters,” under flickering lights that meant his fellow inmates were meeting their end. Behind bars he found God and education and was taught these by his fellow inmates, not his captors. The only reason he accredits to still being alive is because the inmates inspired him to keep trying and his lawyers were determined to find the wholes in the system.
“I was not saved by the system,” Melendez clarified. “I was saved in spite of the system.”
Both exonerees contributed much of their salvation to the education acquired behind bars, taught by fellow inmates and criminals Melendez learned English and both, through experience, were taught the intricacies of the criminal justice system as well as the failure within it. The first time Bain ever used a cell phone was after he was released, immediately to call his mom, and Melendez went to prison in the state of, “If I spoke five words, three of them were going to be cuss words,” and walked away able to both understand English and defend his innocence.
These two stories were presented under the framework of displaying the failures in “the system,” as Greenbaum, local attorney and alum Adam Tebrugge (’79) and veteran capital defense investigator Jeff Walsh presented their cases as luck in “a system that does not work,” as Walsh stated.
Both cases represented the prosecutorial staff as being too “invested in their convictions, unwavering even as it stared them in the face,” Walsh said. “There are miraculous stories,” he continued in a statement to the Catalyst, “but it is equally important to know that there are cases of the opposite nature, people with strong evidence—even DNA—that are ignored by the court and, as a result are incarcerated and executed as innocent people. The system in unable to police itself, therefore the death penalty should be dropped.”
“Juan got lucky because he moved out of the community that had already made up its mind,” he told the audience flatly, along with a story of an innocent man who had been on death row with Melendez and died of cancer in prison before being exonerated or even given a fair chance to be.
Greenbaum explained innocence projects and her along with the other accompanying lawyers’, role in them. The Innocence Project on the website bears the tagline as: “a natural litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” The staff of this national organization consists of volunteer attorneys and lawyers from all over the country who dedicate their spare time and effort to prove wrongful convictions and to show that they are not isolated or rare events but instead rise from systemic defects. As an independent non-profit organization they have exonerated 268 people to date largely through legal scrupulousness and DNA testing.
“I have a confession to make,” Juan interrupted the crowd, “I am still a dreamer.”
Together the group presented a case and the dream for a repeal of the death penalty, offering testimony, examples and legal knowledge they conveyed a message of systemic failure in legal and social policy unable to be eradicated. “The death penalty is a law created by human beings, it is also carried out by human beings and we’re all humans, we all make mistakes!” Melendez cried out in his plea for, not retribution, but mercy. “We can never release an innocent man from the grave,” he reminded his audience.
From the adamancy in the repeal of capital punishment, the conversation became about why the audience or, more particularly, why the students should be proactive about this. “Everyone wants the young minds today,” Walsh said. “You have to be a young mind to be able to do what needs to be done because young minds are looking further than we now can.”
“We need you!” Tebrugge similarly plead to the students. “We need you on the front lines and we need you in the trenches so that we can have confidence in our judicial system.”
To conclude her statement to the Catalyst Greenbaum said: “Student investigators, working with innocence projects nationwide, have been instrumental in freeing the innocent for nearly two decades now. Lessons of that sort adhere and contribute mightily to a more just society. Students everywhere should be educated about this monstrous stain on our ideals, so that they might confront it as both scholars and citizens. Ending bias in the criminal justice system rooted in race and class, which often leads directly to the conviction of the factually innocent, is the civil rights fight of our time. As Juan said in his presentation, we would not stand for slavery or segregation; nor should we stand for their modern equivalent.”