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Too Many Ifs Dealing With Death Penalty

By Myriam Marquez

March 7, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Old Sparky's gone. Convicted killers on Florida's death row now get a lethal injection. It's all very tidy, and one could argue that the victims they killed never had it so good.

So there's a part of me that understands why some people are upset that teenage murderers now can't get the death penalty in Florida or any other state. The U.S. Supreme Court this week drew the line at 18 and older.

Florida remained among 19 states that allowed the death penalty for juvenile killers -- a distinction shared only by Somalia until the Supremes put a stop to it.

Justices, in the 5-4 ruling, reasoned that young people who can't even vote or serve on juries are "categorically less culpable than the average criminal" facing the death penalty. Other reasons backed by scientific studies: Youth display "a lack of maturity and an undeveloped sense of responsibility," and they "are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences."

Here's the other part that Florida and the nation need to own up to: Even for adults, the death penalty is imperfect, costly, no deterrent to other would-be killers and sometimes racially charged. Innocent people have been sent to death row because their conviction was based on unreliable witnesses (often other criminals who have something to gain, like reduced time, by fingering somebody). Or trumped-up charges by cops willing to falsify information to close a case. Or bad evidence, now often exposed by DNA tests, and even racial undertones in jury decisions, particularly when the crime is black against white.

Death-penalty supporters will argue that most of Florida's death-row inmates are white, but even that classification is suspect because the state often classifies Hispanics as white even when that person is of mixed race or black.

Which brings me to Juan Melendez, a death-row survivor whose darker skin might have made him an easy target to convict. At least one juror who wasn't sure of Melendez's guilt changed her mind after the foreman, during deliberations, pointed to Melendez's Afro hairdo in a photo.

In 2002, the Afro was long gone. A 50-year-old man with cropped hair walked out of Union Correctional Institution -- more like floated out on a cloud of optimism -- after spending 17 years, eight months and one day on death row. Melendez was convicted of a murder in which there was absolutely no physical evidence linking him to the 1983 slaying of a cosmetology school owner in Polk County. All prosecutors had was another con's allegation that Melendez told him he did the crime -- they were getting high on cocaine at the time. The eyewitness testimony was questionable, at best.

Melendez had a credible alibi, and prosecutors at the time had questioned another man who actually fessed up. It turned out that Vernon James told at least four investigators and lawyers working the case that he was the killer, but that wasn't allowed in court testimony. Only after the transcript of James' confession was discovered years later was a judge swayed to order a retrial. By then, James had died, as had one of the witnesses who had pointed to Melendez.

Prosecutors dropped the case. Had Melendez's defense team not kept up the fight the Puerto Rican man would be dead instead of traveling around Florida speaking up against the death penalty. (Check out Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty at

Melendez's case isn't an aberration. He was the 99th death-row inmate to walk free in the nation because new evidence cleared him. Not everyone gets that chance. There are too many ifs in a death-penalty case. Life without parole is not only the cheapest alternative -- when innocent lives are at stake, it's the only morally defensible verdict.

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