Innocent man on death row 17 years

Juan Melendez was sentenced to death in Florida for a crime he did not commit. He spoke at the University of Georgia yesterday to tell us about his life, conviction, imprisonment, and exoneration. He urged everyone to take a stand against the death penalty because of the high chance that defendants are innocent and because of the unnecessary collateral damage that an execution brings on a second family besides the victims'.

Melendez was born in Brooklyn in 1951. He was raised in Puerto Rico where he dropped out of school in ninth grade and began working with sugar cane. He moved to the mainland U.S. and became a migrant farm worker. "Everything God created, I picked it," he said.

He was arrested in Pennsylvania in 1984 and extradited to Florida for charges of murder and armed robbery. He did not understand what was happening because he did not know English and he was very rarely provided an interpreter.

He became the victim of one those questionable plea bargains in which a criminal offers testimony as a police informant in exchange for leniency from the system. The witness implicated himself as an accomplice in the crime and lied when he said that Melendez was involved. Another questionable witness in similar circumstances also testified against him.

Melendez was also the victim of racism. The jury was composed of 11 whites and one black. His alibi was provided by black witnesses. A white woman was the holdout juror on their second vote, saying that she just didn't believe Melendez committed the crime. The foreman showed a photograph of Melendez with his hair styled in an Afro and said that a man with a haircut like that could not be innocent. The juror voted for conviction.

Worse than the false testimony or the mindless jury was the misconduct of the prosecutor and the defense attorney. In the events that led to the retrial that exonerated Melendez, the files of his former defense attorney were searched and revealed an audiotape of a confession by the real killer. The prosecutor's files revealed a transcript of that confession plus 16 corroborating documents.

The prosecutor that robbed Melendez of over 17 years of his life is still prosecuting, and the defense attorney that let him do it is a judge, yet law is supposed to be a respectable, ethical profession. It reminds me of the saying that the criminal justice system gives you results that are just that -- they are either criminal or they are justice. The lawyer that accompanied Melendez told us that there has been one exoneration for every eight executions, which means there is no certainty that the people the system is executing are actually guilty.

While he was in prison, Melendez shared a cell with rats and...roaches. He had thoughts of suicide, and with four postage stamps he bought the trash bag from another inmate with which he could hang himself. First, however, he went to sleep, and he had a dream that he was swimming in the ocean where he saw four dolphins, and he felt happy. He saw his mother on the shore and could see that she was smiling -- because he was happy. Thus began a cycle of dreams that brought him hope, so he flushed his trash bag down the toilet.

Melendez also got a lot of support from his family members and his pen pals. Through photos he could watch his relatives grow up, and his mother prayed for a miracle to release him. He renewed his Christian faith just as a lot of inmates became spiritual in search of a higher power. It made him angry, though, when one of his inmate friends died one week before the friend's new trial was granted. The nurse that could have saved his life slowly walked back and forth between the clinic and the inmate, making two trips for equipment and spitting tobacco juice along the way. He allowed Melendez to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but by then it was too late.

Melendez said, "I was not saved by the system -- I was savied in spite of the system. I was saved by the grace of God." His defense attorney had to leave his case, and since the attorney had become a judge in the same county, Melendez's case was moved to another county. Whereas previously Melendez said he was not rich like O.J. Simpson and had to rely on the public defender's office, he now got new lawyers. "I finally got the dream team," he said.

Melendez had learned to read and write English from his fellow inmates, so he understood the process the second time around. He was turned out of prison with clothes and $100. Florida does not have a compensation program for wrongful convictions.


Town and Gown Players: The Children's Hour

I already wrote a little about 'The Children's Hour' starting this Friday at the Athens Community Theater. Now I've met the cast and seen how interesting this show is going to be. Basically, it involves a brat named Mary that doesn't like her boarding school, so she tells her grandmother that her teachers are lesbians.

Town and Gown Players Town and Gown Players Town and Gown Players

As you can imagine, this is quite troubling. You could say that people get out of sorts. You could say that parents yank their girls out of the school really fast, and I imagine that leaving town on splintery rails might be involved later in the show. It is all a devious lie that evil Mary comes up with. I don't know this story, so at least I think it's a lie. Yeah, it's a lie, because she is very manipulative, and she is almost caught in her lie at first, though she either cons her way out of it at a classmate's expense or at maybe just gets to tread water for a while.

The story is really about "the frightening tendency of innuendo to take on a life of its own," or at least the program will say so. It will be interesting to see where the story and its implications lead.

Now, let's get down to business. The set is a real piece of work and the cast is having a lot of fun. Chip Robeson explained to me that the whole production is based on viewpoints perspectives, and he tried to convince me that it wasn't "hippie" nonsense. He says the concept places a lot of emphasis on using space to strengthen the acting and promote communication with the audience. An actor can try different positions on stage to find one that offers the appropriate power for the scene. The space is carefully divided to use the intimate space near the front of the stage and the public space at the rear. Act II involves intimate dialogues and an intimate setting, so the rear wall of the set sits closer to the audience, and it is intended that the wall of the other acts is visible behind it to remind us of that public setting beyond.

Viewpoints perspectives also involve smell. Yes, a carefully crafted olfactory performance is included in the show! Aromatic oils will be dispersed in the air to enhance the scenes. Chip kept some of the scents a secret for now, but I did smell burning wood when a fireplace appeared during rehearsal.

Katie Benfield is directing, and she learned about the viewpoints perspectives from the Broadway director that promoted the concept. Julia Wilson is the assistant director.

Rebecca Douglas brings us the most wicked Mary possible. This schoolgirl is like the worst conniving brat you've ever known. Rebecca can probably transfer some of her real-life sarcasm and withering wit to this character. She can also try to run me down with a bus if I write anything bad about her.

Jessica Royals plays Martha Dobie as an earnest and innocent young teacher with a fear of abandonment by her teaching partner, who is engaged to be married, and that concern is replaced by a wrenching mix of anger, sadness, and fear when Mary's lie is recklessly broadcasted. Brooke Bender as Karen Wright shares those emotions with her friend after the lie, but until then she really acted like a teacher, which is kind of scary.

Joy Leathers as Amelia Tilford is probably like any of our own grandmothers, going from the warm, sweet granny at one moment to the stern grandmother at the next. I'll also mention Maggie Packer's role as Rosalie Wells, a classmate of Mary's, because this poor girl is completely frightened of Mary. Seeing her struggle against Mary's threats and manipulation and repeatedly caving in just makes us hate Mary so much more. Mary tries to get dirt on everyone so she can blackmail them later.

There will be seven performances on September 30 through October 2 and October 6 through October 9. Sundays will have matinees at 2 p.m., and all other shows will be at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $5 to $12, and you should make reservations by calling (706) 208-TOWN. Visit the website of The Town and Gown Players to learn more, including how to order season tickets.