Guilty until proven innocent
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 02:03
Pi Sigma Alpha, Oregon State University’s political science honors club, will be hosting a presentation regarding reasons against the death penalty that will likely provide a platform for interesting thoughts and discussion. The presentation will take place on March 7 at 3 p.m. in the Construction and Engineering Hall of LaSells Stewart Center.
“I think this will be a great opportunity for the community to see that there are valid alternatives to the death penalty,” said senior Tyler Phelps.
Pi Sigma Alpha is a national political science honors society, whose members include Former President Bill Clinton. In 1980, an OSU chapter of the society formed, but later was disbanded. Last year it was once again reinstated.
“We’re trying to make a community where political science majors who have classes together can get know each other and be exposed to multiple opportunites not otherwise experienced in class,” said OSU senior Tara Newell.
The event this Thursday will feature two innocent men who spent time on death row before being found innocent: Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón and Greg Wilhoit, as well as Peter Fahy, a death penalty defense attorney. They will tell their stories and perspectives regarding the use of the death penalty in the United States.
Fahy served for 12 years as a prosecutor in Lincoln County, eventually rising to the rank of chief deputy district attorney. He has since entered private practice in Corvallis, where he works exclusively on defending clients in capital trials.
Meléndez-Colón spent nearly 18 years on Florida’s death row for a homicide crime he did not commit. Unable to afford an attorney, he was convicted and sentenced to death within a week despite the absence of physical evidence incriminating him.
His conviction rested on the testimony of two questionable witnesses, a police informant with an unsavory criminal record and a co-defendant who was threatened with the electric chair, but ultimately received a sentence of a two-year probation after he testified against Meléndez-Colón in trial.
Had it not been for the discovery of a transcript of the taped confession of the real killer 16 years after Meléndez-Colón was sentenced to death, he would have been executed. It also came to light that the prosecutor had withheld exculpatory evidence.
Since his release from death row in 2002, Juan has shared his story of supreme injustice, survival and hope with tens of thousands of people in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Wilhoit, from Tulsa, Okla., spent five years of his life on death row for a crime he, too, did not commit. Accused of murdering his wife in 1985, the case against Wilhoit was built on faulty forensic evidence.
His parents hired a top defense attorney whose alcoholism impaired his ability to deliver the defense in court.
As Wilhoit recalls, the judge said to him, “You are to die by lethal injection. If that fails, we’ll electrocute you. If the power goes out, we’ll hang you. And if the rope breaks we’ll take you out back and shoot you.”
Through several appeals with the help of a newly assigned attorney, the faulty forensics were ultimately rejected and Wilhoit was found innocent in 1993. Greg lost eight years of his life, the opportunity to raise his two daughters, his livelihood, and his physical and mental health. He now serves as an advocate in the effort to end the death penalty in the United States.
“I think this will be really fascinating, because often people don’t think of the fact that someone [on death row] may be innocent,” Newell said.
The presentation is free and open to the OSU student body and general public.
Ryan Dawes, news reporter