Salem-Journal: Innocent men speak at Willamette about being on death row

Witness to Innocence

For nearly 18 years, Juan Melendez-Colon listened to a rhythmic buzzing reverberate through his cell on death row whenever Florida executed an inmate at the Union Correctional Institution.

“One day they snatch him up out of his cell, and I know what’s going to happen,” Melendez said. “They are going to kill him.”

Melendez-Colon was convicted of murder in 1983. He was exonerated in 2002.

Melendez-Colon travels the country speaking to organizations about repealing the death penalty as part of the Witness to Innocence Tour.

On Thursday, the tour stopped at Willamette University’s Cone Chapel, where Melendez-Colon and Greg Wilhoit, another former death row inmate, recounted their experiences to a room of about 70 people.
Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty invited the tour to the Beaver State, which allows judges to hand down death penalty sentences. The tour stopped later Thursday at Western Oregon University in Monmouth and Oregon State University in Corvallis.

There are 37 people on death row in Oregon, but Gov. John Kitzhaber placed a moratorium on all executions on
Nov. 22, 2011—stopping the scheduled execution of Gary Haugen two weeks away.

On Feb. 26, the House Judiciary Committee heard public testimony about a proposed ballot measure for 2014 that would ask voters to amend Oregon’s constitution to ban the death penalty.

Event organizer and OADP board chairman Ron Steiner hoped bringing Wilhoit and Melendez-Colon to Willamette and three other college campuses in Oregon will encourage students to become more involved in his organization’s efforts to repeal the death penalty.

Statistics such as 1 in 10 people on death row in the U.S. eventually are exonerated help Steiner’s case, but, he said, having those innocent men and women speak is far more effective.

Audience members laughed when Wilhoit described how his attorney, who Wilhoit called an “incompetent alcoholic,” wet his pants twice and vomited in the judge’s chambers once during Wilhoit’s capital murder trial.

Laughing aside, Wilhoit said his attorney mounted no defense and never questioned the accuracy of the prosecution’s bite mark evidence. Those marks found on his wife’s wrist ultimately exonerated him as a suspect in her brutal rape and murder four years later. The case remains unsolved.

First-year law student Jonathan Grindell said he’d heard stories like Wilhoit’s and Melendez-Colon’s before, but it didn’t make listening any easier.

He was especially troubled — although not surprised — by Melendez-Colon’s story of a prison nurse who used a racial epithet and refused to perform CPR on an inmate. The man died one month before Florida granted his motion for a new trial, Melendez-Colon said.

Both men invited the audience to join them in working to repeal the death penalty in Oregon.

“The most important thing people need to know is this,” Melendez-Colon said. “We can always release an innocent man from prison, but we can never — and I repeat we can never — release an innocent man from the grave.”

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