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Freed from death row, ex-prisoners tell how faith sustained them

Priscilla Greear

Catholic News Service - January 2006

 

 HAMPTON, Ga. (CNS) — Juan Roberto Melendez Colon can remember holding a rope in his hands preparing to strangle himself in his prison cell on Florida’s death row, but something held him back.

 Instead, he went to sleep and dreamed he was swimming again as he loved to do as a boy in the tranquil aqua waters of the Caribbean.

 “The sun was bright. The sky was blue. The palm trees looked so good from the shore of the beach, and I was right there in the Caribbean swimming. Then I saw ... four dolphins ... flipping and jumping like dolphins do. And then I looked to the shore and I saw my mama waving at me. ... I was happy,” he recalled.

 He awoke with new hope that one day he would be found innocent, and he flushed the rope down the toilet.

 In January 2002, he became the 99th of 122 former death-row inmates to be exonerated in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. He and 12 other exonerated men took part in a recent retreat in Hampton sponsored by the Witness to Innocence project.

 Melendez spent 17 years, eight months and one day in prison for a crime he did not commit, clinging to his faith as he battled the criminal justice system. Twice in 18 years he had visitors, both family members.

 A Catholic, he had several times contemplated suicide as his escape, but “my Creator would send me beautiful dreams from my childhood and hope that one day I would be free,” he said.

 “I had to go back to my roots and to what my mama told me about Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost,” he told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “The condemned men who didn’t turn to something spiritual either went crazy or committed suicide.”

 The guest speaker at the retreat was Sister Helen Prejean, the Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille who wrote a best-selling book about her death-row ministry, “Dead Man Walking.” Her new book, “The Death of Innocents,” addresses flaws in the criminal justice system that she says lead to the execution of innocent people.

 Witness to Innocence is a project of the Moratorium Campaign, which brings to light wrongful death sentencing because of errors.

 The retreat participants were gathered in a state that has been at the center of the death penalty debate. As a result of Georgia cases, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972, but then reinstated in 1976 and upheld again in 1987 even as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged inherent racial disparities in its implementation.

 In 2002 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded inmates, and last March ruled against killing juveniles.

 Condemned to death based on circumstantial evidence, Ray Krone, now director of communications and training for Witness to Innocence, was the 100th person to be exonerated from death row. In 2002 he was released after 10 years in prison.

 With the help of lawyer Alan Simpson, Krone was able to get an appeals court to allow DNA testing on evidence found at the murder scene that pointed not to him, but to a convicted sex offender. DNA evidence is available in only about 15 percent of cases.

 “(Simpson) took my case because he believed in me,” Krone said. “We couldn’t pay him what he wanted, but he took my case and he uncovered stuff that should have been uncovered right at the beginning.”

 When Krone, a native of Dover, Pa., was imprisoned he was in shock and despair. But then he realized that he had to learn the system and fight it. And he needed God to survive.

 “I realized I had to reconnect with my faith. I started reading the Bible. I found strength like in the stories of Job, those who had to persevere when the Lord allowed them to be brought down to their knees only later to be built up. ... Those types of passages helped me overcome this disheartening feeling like ‘why me?’” he said.

 Kurt Rosenberg, director of Witness to Innocence, said in almost all the cases in which prisoners have been exonerated there was evidence prosecutors had pushed for victory regardless of the truth.

 “There was a rush to prosecute someone who was innocent, despite the fact that there was no significant evidence they were guilty of the crime, a real rush to prosecute these people ... for something they didn’t do because it is a very politically charged atmosphere and death sentences are sought to take advantage of that.”

 

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