By Alyssa Henderson, intern

For every person, there is a story meant to be told. And for some people, that story has the power to transform a life.

On September 26, I had the honor of meeting a man whose story impacted my life in a very meaningful way. I walked away with a new conviction and a fire burning under me. After hearing Juan Melendez’s speech at Gonzaga School of Law, I finally knew exactly where I stood on the issue of the death penalty: completely and utterly opposed to it.

Juan Melendez, convicted of murder in September of 1983, spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit. There was no physical evidence that ever linked Juan to the crime scene –only two questionable testimonies from witnesses. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in a matter of days. Juan could not speak English and was not offered an interpreter. He was essentially helpless to the prosecution’s attack and was unaware of the corruption that was going on with his defense attorney. He was shackled and told that his new home was going to be a jail cell. What followed was a torturous and agonizing taste of the supreme injustice of our “justice” system.

Juan’s journey touched me to the core. As he told his story to the audience (it was a full house with many students, advocates, and community members present), I glanced around and saw the look of disgust on people’s faces. I saw others brushing away tears, as was my mother who was sitting next to me. I found it hard to keep my own composure when Juan spoke of his friend dying from a stroke in the jail yard at the hands of the jail’s medical staff, who didn’t seem to care that a death row inmate was taking their last breath. This man, this human being, died in Juan’s arms that day.

I found myself not only appalled at what I was hearing, but I was becoming angry. Juan was innocent. It later came out that his defense attorney and prosecuting attorney had withheld a taped confession of the real killer and Juan was exonerated in 2002. He could have been put to death at any moment, all the while, it was known who was truly guilty. How many other people does this happen to? How many other innocents have been killed and now it’s too late? They will never have their chance. Juan was lucky because he had his. But many others won’t.

As long as we have the death penalty, these types of things will still be occurring. Our society is committing pre-meditated murder. It’s time to wake up. These are people we are talking about, human lives that we are destroying. This is not justice—it’s hypocritical thinking. Why do we murder someone when we just told them that we abhor the crime committed? We are becoming killing machines and this will keep feeding the cycle of violence—we think we are safer by putting people to death but statistics show we aren’t. There are other options!

Juan’s words transformed me from within and I don’t say this lightly. I am now a proud advocate of abolishing the death penalty and if Juan can be that courageous to stand up for what he believes in, then so can I. So can we. Change doesn’t happen from staying silent. We must speak out and we must keep fighting.