Washington Post Editorial
January 5, 2002


Another Death Row Mistake


AT HIS TRIAL in Florida in 1984 for the murder of one Delbert Baker, Juan Roberto Melendez sought to argue that another man, Vernon James, had committed the crime. But when Mr. James was called to testify, he took the Fifth Amendment, and Mr. Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death. Seventeen years later, facing a mountain of new evidence that all seems to bolster Mr. Melendez's trial defense, Florida Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer threw out Mr. Melendez's conviction. Exculpatory evidence had been withheld, she wrote, and the cumulative effects of new evidence "combine to undermine the confidence in the outcome of Defendant's original trial" and create "a reasonable probability of a different outcome." This week, prosecutors decided to drop the case and Mr. Melendez went free.

The evidence against Mr. Melendez was never strong. He was convicted on the strength of two witnesses -- one of whom professed peripheral involvement in the killing and the other of whom claimed Mr. Melendez had confessed to him. As far back as 1986, one judge of the Florida Supreme Court objected to his death sentence, saying "I do not . . . believe that the quality of [the] evidence is sufficient to support imposition of the death penalty." But Mr. Melendez remained on death row, and until 2000, his appeals were going nowhere. He could easily have been executed.

The break in the case came only in 2000, when it came to light that Mr. Melendez's trial attorneys had possessed a taped interview with the now-deceased Mr. James in which, as Judge Fleischer put it, "Vernon James said that Juan Melendez was not present when [the victim] was killed." Numerous other witnesses have also been located, and their statements "tend to corroborate that Vernon James was present and that Juan Melendez was not." Meanwhile, serious questions have been raised about the two witnesses who implicated Mr. Melendez. Their prior statements, withheld from the defense, contradicted their testimony at trial on numerous points.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Mr. Melendez is the 99th death row inmate to be freed since the modern era of capital punishment began in this country. In that time, there have been around 750 executions -- meaning that an unnervingly large number of capital convictions are ultimately shown to involve the gravest of errors. How many times, one must wonder, have such errors gone undiscovered? Particularly now, with states racing convicts from the courtroom to the death chamber, nobody can say with any confidence that all of the people executed in America have been guilty. It is long past time to do away with a punishment that serves no useful purpose and the erroneous application of which will eventually -- if it hasn't already -- implicate government in the killing of innocent people.

Copyright 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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