Death Row Inmates Exonerated


Television has always had a love affair with detective programs, dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s when such shows as “Man Against Crime,” “Martin Kane, Private Eye,” and “The Adventures of Ellery Queen” featured the “hard boiled private eye,” or “cerebral puzzle-solving” detective fighting crime, as an article on the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications titled “Detective Programs” points out. Decades later, the genre changed significantly as the plots thickened and the lives of the lead characters became more appealing, as evidenced by the anti-hero James Garner in “The Rockford Files” or Peter Falk’s endearing “Columbo.” Still later, “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Homicide” reached new heights with their ensemble casts, more complex storytelling, and realistic cinematic scenes.

 

These days, however, the television crime solver is more likely to be a savvy criminalist or forensic detective who has access to all sorts of high-tech paraphernalia. When “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered in October 2000, the show became an instant hit, in part because of its distinctive use of science and technology and in part because of the grisly crime scenes it portrayed.

 

While the detective genre has changed markedly over the years, one thing hasn’t changed: the crime is solved at the end of the program and the “bad guys” get caught. But, as we’ve seen with greater frequency, in real life the supposed “good guys” are not always the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are not always guilty.

 

Fortunately, many of those convicted of crimes they did not commit have been released from prison because of DNA evidence, as well as from  old-fashioned leg work by resolute investigators. It was that kind of intrepid legwork that led to the January 3, 2002, release of Juan Roberto Melendez from Florida’s death row after having served nearly 18 years for a crime he did not commit.

 

For more than ten years the legal team at the Tallahassee branch of Capital Collateral Representative, a Florida agency, had been working on Melendez’s case. The evidence that ultimately led to his release was uncovered through investigative work done by the offices of Rosa Greenbaum.

 

A Reuters report pointed out that, “Greenbaum discovered transcripts of a confession [to the September 13, 1983, murder of Delbert Baker, who was found dead at his Auburndale, Florida beauty school] made by Vernon James, who died in 1986. James had admitted to state investigators that he killed Baker. Greenbaum re-interviewed witnesses who corroborated his confession.” She also developed numerous new exculpatory witnesses, including individuals no one had been able to find in the intervening 16 years.

 

Greenbaum explained in an e-mail exchange, that “DNA evidence is relatively rare and false convictions in cases lacking biological evidence can only be overturned through solid, traditional investigation.” For Greenbaum, this entails requesting records and poring over documents in order to develop an investigation plan. With a list of potentially helpful witnesses in hand, she knocked on doors, “trying to gain trust and praying for luck.”

 

Greenbaum pointed out that, “The awesome power of the justice system is often terrifying to the people who possess information that could free an innocent person. It’s a delicate dance to get that testimony before a court for consideration. In Juan’s case, the physical evidence that could have cleared him was not preserved and DNA was a non-factor. But he had some amazing luck—the real culprit confessed profusely and on tape.” That confession, and Greenbaum’s tenacity in talking to nearly every witness—no matter how apparently remote to the case—gave lawyers what they needed to  get Juan free.

 

“There’s no question,” Greebaum added. “More investigation-based innocence projects need to be established. Despite, or perhaps due to, the number of high-profile DNA exonerations…in recent years, people seem to be unaware of the scope of this problem. Some believe that DNA will [bring] out the truth in all cases and that false convictions are flukes. People need to know that this is not the case, especially young people contemplating careers in law, journalism, public policy, and social science research. There is a saying that a Harvard Law graduate is more likely to become a criminal defendant than a criminal defense attorney. Gifted criminal defense investigators are even harder to find. This needs to change.”

 

In April, Melendez, Greenbaum, highly respected criminal lawyer Adam Tebrugge, veteran capital defense investigator Jeff Walsh, and James Bain—a client of the Innocence Project of Florida (www.floridainnocence.org) who was imprisoned for 35 years before DNA testing proved him innocent—appeared at a forum at the New College of Florida in Sarasota.

 

Melendez, who has never received any compensation from the state and who since his release has become a worldwide speaker and human rights activist, spoke about how he endured the horrendous conditions in prison and how he “was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system.”

 

After the forum, Greenbaum told a reporter for the New College student newspaper, the Catalyst, that, “Something very wrong is happening in our world. Innocent people’s precious lives are being stolen and destroyed by our criminal justice system…. These tragedies occur far more often than most people realize. Corruption, human error, and bad practices all lend themselves to…wrongful conviction. Corruption and error are inherent; bad practices are not. We must demand the adoption of well-known but oft disregarded safeguards, such as double-blind line-up protocols. And when corruption is at fault, the responsible actors must be brought to account.”

 

One purpose of the New College forum was to make students aware of the important work that innocence projects are doing across the country. Spearheading this work is The Innocence Project, which was created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld as a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. It has since become “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”

 

Greenbaum told the Catalyst that, “Student investigators, working with innocence projects nationwide, have been instrumental in freeing the innocent for nearly two decades now. Lessons of that sort adhere and contribute mightily to a more just society…. Ending bias in the criminal justice system…which often leads directly to the conviction of the factually innocent, is the civil rights fight of our time. As Juan said in his presentation, we would not stand for slavery or segregation; nor should we stand for their modern equivalent.”

 

At the time of his release, Melendez was the 99th death row inmate to be exonerated in the U.S. in 30 years. Now, nearly ten years after his release, the number of death row inmates that have been exonerated has grown to more than 130 in 26 different states since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (deathpenaltyinfo.org).

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.