Juan Melendez and
Choosing Forgiveness -- from
Touched by the death penalty in the most opposite of ways, two men traveled a brave road to forgiveness, turning anger into healing and a fight for justice. It is hard to imagine two more disparate experiences than those of the men featured in this story. Juan Melendez spent 17 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Bud Welch is the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
When asked how long he sat on death row, Juan Melendez can answer the question to the day: 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day. The nightmare began in March 1984, when Juan was arrested for the murder of cosmetology school owner Delbert Baker. A miscarriage of justice, Juan's trial weaves a tale of lying witnesses, withheld evidence, and an arbitrary system.
The state's case rested on two eyewitnesses. The first, John Berrien, was Juan's co-defendant, who was offered the possibility of probation as a sentence in exchange for his testimony. The jury never heard that Berrien told the police several different stories, none of which were consistent with his testimony at trial. The second witness was David Falcon, a convicted murderer himself who escaped from a 45-year sentence in Puerto Rico and received $5,000 in exchange for his testimony. Several witnesses testified that Falcon has a grudge against Juan and had threatened to kill him before coming forward to say that Juan had allegedly confessed.
Meanwhile, other eyewitness evidence pointed to Vernon James as a lead. Though police dropped the lead after James' friend denied that they were at the scene, three subsequent interviews with James revealed a confession. None of those interviews were revealed at trial, and one of them, conducted by an investigator for the prosecutor, was concealed from the defense.
A maze of appeals later, Juan was finally granted a new trial and exonerated in January 2002. Of his time in prison, Juan recounts terrible medical conditions, including several fellow inmates who died of heart attacks or cancer because they didn’t receive treatment in time.
But he is not bitter. While on death row, a fellow inmate taught him to read and write English. "When they kill a person on death row they are not killing the same person who committed the crime," he says. Since his release, Juan has spoken out against the death penalty and presented the keynote address at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) awards banquet in October 2002.
"I forgive him," Juan says of the prosecutor who almost cost him his life. But "I cannot respect him or smile at him if I saw him," he adds, for he sees forgiving and respecting as separate actions. For Juan's respect, the prosecutor would need to apologize and acknowledge the severity of his mistake.
"The thing about forgiving is that after forgiving, only then can you start to heal. If you don't forgive you are filled with hate and anger. The death penalty," says Juan, "does nothing to provide that healing."
Bud Welch couldn't agree more. His daughter, Julie, was 23 when she became one of 168 people to die in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Though opposed to the death penalty all his life, Bud wanted to kill Timothy McVeigh himself when he heard the news. "I didn't even want a trial. I just wanted him fried," he says.
"But after a time," he says, "I was able to examine my conscience, and I realized that if McVeigh is put to death, it won't help me in the healing process. People talk about executions bringing closure. But how can there be closure when my little girl is never coming back. I finally realized that the death penalty is all about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate are why Julie Marie and 167 others are dead."
Bud has met with many murder victims' family members since he became a spokesperson against the death penalty. He says that many of the families of the Oklahoma City victims agree with him, but are afraid they'll be misunderstood if they speak out. "I am their voice," he says.
Two years after Julie's death, Bud took a remarkable step and went to meet Bill McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh's father. They have since become friends. During that visit, he told Timothy McVeigh's sister Jennifer that he would do everything he could to stop the execution. When he returned home, he cried for an hour. "But I have never felt closer to God in my life than I did at that moment. It felt like a load had been taken completely off my shoulders," he says.
Juan and Bud know firsthand the pain of murder, crime, and the death penalty. And they know the power of love and forgiveness. Their stories are remarkable, and yet, they are the stories of so many that are touched by the death penalty the over 100 other exonerees sentenced by a broken system and almost executed for crimes they didn't commit, and the over 3,000 members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation who have discovered that vengeance is not the way to closure.
In some ways, those are the lucky ones. How many others sit on death row awaiting execution? How many are innocent? How many are mentally ill? How many could have avoided the path to crime had our country used its riches for better social services, education, and public health instead of the electric chair? And how many murder victims' families have not found reconciliation? How many waited 10, 15, or 20 years to finally bask in the closure of execution, only to find that once the deed had been done they felt worse? Bud says he's met many families who can tell such a story.
The lives and stories of these two men have spoken to many and have stimulated action. You may be one who is so inspired.
For further information on efforts to halt executions and abolish the death penalty, see: