Juan Melendez, a man who spent 18 years wrongfully convicted of murder on Florida’s death row, and Michel Dunn, a Canadian lifer on parole, spoke to the McGill community Monday night at the Moot Court.
The event was co-coordinated by Innocence McGill, a student-led centre at McGill’s faculty of law that investigates “claims of wrongful conviction in the province of Quebec,” along with Amnesty International Quebec and the Association des services de réhabilitation sociale du Québec.
Melendez was born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Puerto Rico, and returned to the U.S. as a migrant worker. When he was arrested for homicide, he said he was “naive to the [English] language, naive to the law.” Like 95 per cent of death row inmates in the U.S., Melendez could not afford his own lawyer.
Melendez recalled that for many on death row, the only way to freedom was suicide. “I never saw my friends kill themselves because I can’t see through the walls…but I did see them bring bodies out,” he said. He also highlighted the lack of medical attention that the penal system offers its death row inmates.
“Why give the best medication to a person who’s condemned to death?” he asked.
In 2002, 17 years, eight months, and one day after his imprisonment, Melendez was released. The State of Florida gave him $100, a pair of pants, a shirt, and no public apology.
“I was saved in spite of the system,” Melendez said.
The Juan Melendez Voices United For Justice Project now works to prevent cases like Melendez’s from recurring – their ultimate goal being abolition of the death penalty.
During his speech, Dunn was also candid about his crime, and the life sentence he received.
“If the death penalty had existed in Canada I would not be here today…. I would not have had time to grieve and to see the suffering I caused,” Dunn said.
Since being released, Dunn has worked for Option-vie, a program run by ex-prisoners who work with inmates currently serving life sentences, which also helps integrate them back into their communities if they are paroled.
A representative of Amnesty International noted that while the death penalty does not exist in Canada, the Conservative government still fails its citizens in the realm of criminal justice. He felt the government’s “case by case basis for defending citizens overseas, and failing to seek clemency” suggests that the government does not adequately protect its citizens.
The representative also cited the cases of Canadian citizens Ronald Allen Smith, on death row in the U.S., and Muhamed Kohail, awaiting a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Judi Caruso, the director of the Melendez Project, also explained what she sees as the racist underpinnings of the death penalty in the U.S. In order to sit on the jury of a death penalty case, one must sign a statement that they are willing to sentence someone to death.
“Most Latinos and African Americans oppose the death penalty,” Caruso said. “Therefore they can’t even sit on the death-qualified jury.”