Not taking freedom for granted
Published: Friday, March 8, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 8, 2013 01:03
Before his death sentence for a crime he did not commit, Greg Wilhoit’s judge conferred these words upon 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.”
Wilhoit began his morning the same as any other. He was unaware his wife had been brutally murdered, and a little more than eight months later he would be falsely convicted of killing her and sentenced to death. After his sentence was issued, Wilhoit spent the next five years in nightmarish conditions on Oklahoma’s death row before being found truly innocent.
Now free, Wilhoit and fellow exoneree Juan Meléndez, with death penalty defense attorney Peter Fahy of Corvallis, came together to advocate for abolition of the death penalty. Yesterday at 3 p.m. in the LaSells Stewart Center, they told their stories in the event, “Surviving Death Row.” The event was sponsored by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, OSU’s chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha — the National Political Honors Society — Witness to Innocence, Window to Justice and the OSU school of public policy.
“Their stories were really powerful,” said Brett Burkhardt, OSU assistant professor in the school of public policy, and mediator of the presentation. “It makes you realize the weight of the death sentence, because if you make a mistake in sentencing someone who is innocent, then you have basically murdered an innocent person.”
Each of the three speakers had 15 minutes to give their testimony regarding death row. Then, at the end for about 20 minutes, the audience had the chance to ask questions.
“This event was a good way to learn about the issue,” said Nicole Stauch, president of OSU’s Pi Sigma Alpha chapter. “Even as a political science major, I learned a lot.”
Meléndez, who was a resident in Puerto Rico when he was falsely convicted of the death sentence, spent 18 years on Florida’s death row. Many of his inmates committed suicide by convincing their jailor to give them a plastic garbage bag, with which they twisted into a rope to hang themselves.
Meléndez, plagued by loneliness and depression in his situation, considered hanging himself with a garbage bag.
However, thinking and dreaming of his family and home life back in Puerto Rico, his knowledge of his innocence, keeping a positive attitude and his faith that God would provide him a miracle at the right time, allowed Meléndez to regain his freedom and dignity.
His miracle came when a confession video was retrieved from the actual perpetrator of the crime Meléndez was accused of, and with it he was exonerated.
“I wanted to see the moon and the stars,” Meléndez said, recalling what was going through his mind upon being proven innocent.
“I wanted to walk on grass and dirt,” Meléndez said. “I wanted to hold a baby. I desperately missed what we take for granted every day.”
Fahy, death penalty defense attorney, has been battling against capital punishment since the beginning of his career. Not only does he explain it as inhumane, unconstitutional, expensive and ineffective, but also as having negative effects on those administering it.
“The death penalty dehumanizes everyone involved,” Fahy said. “We turn our good honest penal staff into killers.”
These three men will continue to advocate against the death penalty for many years to come.
“We can always release an innocent person from prison, but never from the grave,” Meléndez said. “I dream and pray to God every day that the death penalty will be abolished.”
Ryan Dawes, news reporter