Wednesday, February 4, 2004
Opponents of the death penalty speak out
Juan Roberto Melendez Colon spent nearly 18 years on Florida's death row before a judge freed him as the innocent man he claimed to be.
Bill Pelke supported the death penalty for the 15-year-old girl who brutally killed his grandmother. But then he had an epiphany.
"Johnny" Melendez, a Puerto Rican, and Bill Pelke of Gary, Ind., would never have met had they not walked through similar shadows.
But yesterday in Seattle, the two men launched a nationwide schedule of speaking engagements, hoping to increase public awareness of wrongful convictions among people sent to death row. They hope ultimately to overturn the death penalty in every state.
"I left my anger in prison," Colon said yesterday, recalling the circumstances that led to his wrongful conviction of first-degree murder and armed robbery -- and the more than 15 friends he knew in prison who committed suicide.
"But now I fight for this cause, to abolish the death penalty," Melendez said. "I can't cry. I have to tell people the facts with humor and sad stories, without feeling hateful."
The two men, along with Abe Bonowitz, a former death penalty supporter who now heads Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, will speak today at the University of Washington Law School. The Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Amnesty International Puget Sound and other local groups sponsored their visit.
"We're not namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberals," Bonowitz said. "I wholeheartedly supported the death penalty until I educated myself and realized how unequal justice can be."
Nationally, there are an estimated 3,500 people on death row. In Washington state, where there are currently 10 men on death row, the death penalty is a subject of debate, largely because of last year's conviction of Gary Ridgway, the long-sought Green River Killer. Ridgway was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms for each of the 48 women he murdered, rather than the death penalty.
Largely in response to the Ridgway case, some state lawmakers are seeking to strengthen the death penalty by prohibiting plea bargains in "multiple capital murder cases." House Bill 2315 states, "The Legislature finds that plea bargains in multiple capital murder cases are not appropriate and deny justice to the victims, their families and friends and the community at large."
Rep. Mike Carrell, a Republican bill sponsor and the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, could not be reached for comment.
But Melendez, Pelke and Bonowitz say the death penalty is not the answer.
"They say the death penalty is for the worst of the worst, and Ridgway would definitely fall into that category," Pelke said. "But most of the people who get the death penalty are not the worst of the worst, they're minorities, poor people, mentally ill."
"(Ridgway) will die in prison, and in some ways that's a worse fate," Bonowitz said. "And the public will be protected."
Bonowitz said among the alternatives his group seeks is what Ridgway got -- life in prison without possibility of parole.
Recent studies show that the average cost of life without parole for inmates is $600,000 to $800,000, compared with the estimated $2.1 million to $3.5 million to execute someone, Bonowitz said. Costly and prolonged trials, appeals and added security for death row inmates are the main factors for the difference, he said.
Some states, including Florida, have considered eliminating the death penalty in favor of life without parole to help balance their budgets or divert money to other social needs. Florida estimated it would save $51 million annually; California, $91 million.
Then there is the issue of mercy, said Pelke, who was raised and remains a devout Baptist. His grandmother, Ruth Pelke, taught Sunday school and held regular Bible classes in her home -- a fact that her teenage murderer and three accomplices used as a ruse to enter her home.
"Nana was butchered. She was stabbed 33 times with a 12-inch kitchen knife. Her body was shredded," Pelke said. "On July 11, 1986, I said I wanted Paula Cooper (the 15-year-old convicted of the murder) to get the death penalty. But on Nov. 2, 1986, I did a 360-degree turn and became an abolitionist."
Since then, Pelke has written a book, "Journey of Hope," and has successfully fought for Cooper, whose sentence was recently changed to a 60-year term. Cooper, the victim of domestic violence herself, has obtained a high school equivalency diploma and a college degree in prison, and is working to help pay restitution and build skills for a hoped-for day of release.
Melendez, the 24th of 25 prisoners found to have been wrongly placed on death row in Florida, said he hoped for a miracle -- and received one.
Melendez, now 52, said he had no family in Florida, did not speak English, was a migrant worker and had a conviction for armed robbery when he was falsely convicted and sentenced in 1984. The miracle came from a diligent judge willing to thoroughly review a botched case.
TO LEARN MOREWrongly convicted former death row inmate Juan Roberto Melendez Colon and Bill Pelke, author of "Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing," will discuss their experiences today from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the University of Washington Law School, Room 119. The talk is free and open to the public. The Seattle stop is part of a national tour.
For more information, check these Web sites:
P-I reporter Debera Carlton Harrell can be reached at 206-448-8326 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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