Preventing the Innocent from Being Executed: More Than 130 Death Row Inmates Exonerated and Released

Written by Bill Berkowitz

Television has always had a love affair with detective programs, dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s when such shows as “Man Against Crime,” “Martin Kane, Private Eye,” and “The Adventures of Ellery Queen” featured the “hard boiled private eye,” or “cerebral puzzle-solving” detective fighting crime, as an article on the website of The Museum of Broadcast Communications titled “Detective Programs” points out. As the decades passed, the genre changed significantly; the plots thickened, and the lives of the lead characters became more appealing as evidenced by anti-hero human/playfulness of James Garner in “The Rockford Files,” or Peter Falk’s endearing “Columbo.” Later, “Hill Street Blues,” NYPD Blue” and “Homicide” reached new heights with their excellent ensemble casts, deeper storytelling and cinematic achievements.

These days, however, the television crime solver is more likely to be a savvy criminalist or forensic detective who has access to all sorts of high-tech paraphernalia. When “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” also known as “CSI: Las Vegas,” premiered in October 2000, Juan Roberto Melendez had been in prison for sixteen years. The show became an instant hit, in part because of its distinctive use of science and technology and in part because of the grisly crime scenes it portrayed. Naturally enough, CSI’s success not only eventually led to such in-house spin-offs as “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York,” it has also led to the burgeoning of high-tech police procedurals. Over the years, on television and in real life, DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) has become a household word.

While the detective genre has changed markedly over the years, one thing hasn’t changed, the crime is usually solved at the end of the program; by hook or by crook the “bad guys” get caught.

But as we’ve seen with greater frequency in real life over the years, the supposed “good guys” – the police, prosecutors, crime lab operators and judges — are not always the “good guys,” and the “bad guys” are not always guilty.

And while many of those convicted of crimes they did not commit have been released from prison – many after having served long prison stretches — because of DNA evidence, it is also true that good old-fashioned leg work by resolute investigators has been critical to gaining the release of the wrongfully convicted.

It was that kind of intrepid legwork that led to the January 3, 2002, release of Juan Roberto Melendez from Florida’s death row after having served nearly eighteen years for a crime he did not commit.

For more than ten years the legal team at the Tallahassee branch of Capital Collateral Representative, a Florida agency that provides attorneys and investigators for persons on death row, had been working on Melendez’s case. The evidence that ultimately led to his release was uncovered through the extraordinary investigative work done by the office’s Rosa Greenbaum, who began working the case in the summer of 2000, building upon the work done by previous investigators.

The Reuters report pointed out that “Greenbaum discovered transcripts of a confession [to the September 13, 1983, murder of Delbert Baker, who was found dead at his Auburndale, Florida beauty school] made by Vernon James, who died in 1986. James had admitted to state investigators that he killed Baker. Greenbaum re-interviewed witnesses who corroborated his confession.”

She also developed numerous new exculpatory witnesses, including individuals no one had been able to find in the intervening 16 years. (For more details on the case see “A dead man walking toward freedom.”

The fact of the matter, Rosa Greenbaum told me in an e-mail exchange, is that “DNA evidence is relatively rare, and false convictions in cases lacking biological evidence often can only be overturned through solid, traditional investigation.” For Greenbaum, this entails requesting records and poring over documents with a thorough attention to detail in order to gain mastery of the facts and develop an investigation plan. With a list of potentially helpful witnesses in hand, she knocks on doors, “trying to gain trust and prays for luck.”

Greenbaum pointed out that “The awesome power of the justice system is often terrifying to the very people who possess information that could free an innocent person. It’s a delicate dance to get that testimony before a court for consideration. In Juan’s case, the physical evidence that could have cleared him was not preserved; DNA was a non-factor. But he had some amazing luck — the real culprit confessed profusely, and on tape.” That confession, and Greenbaum’s tenacity in talking to nearly every potential witness — no matter how apparently remote to the case — gave his lawyers what they needed to go to court and get Juan free.

(Full disclosure: I have known Rosa since her birth and she is a dear friend and the daughter of lifelong friends.)

“There’s no question,” she added, “More investigation-based innocence projects need to be established. Despite, or perhaps due to, the number of high-profile DNA exonerations we have seen in recent years, people seem to be unaware of the scope of this problem. Some believe that DNA will out the truth in all cases, and that false convictions are flukes. People need to know that this is not the case, especially young people contemplating careers in law, journalism, public policy and social science research. There is a saying that a Harvard Law graduate is more likely to become a criminal defendant than a criminal defense attorney. Gifted criminal defense investigators are even harder to find. This needs to change.”

Last month, Melendez, Greenbaum, Adam Tebrugge, a highly respected criminal lawyer, veteran capital defense investigator Jeff Walsh, and James Bain, a client of the Innocence Project of Florida who was imprisoned for 35 years before DNA testing proved him innocent, appeared at a forum at New College of Florida in Sarasota.

Melendez, who has never received any compensation from the state and who since his release has become a worldwide speaker and human rights activist, spoke about how he endured the horrendous conditions in prison, and he pointed out that he “was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system.”

After the forum, Greenbaum, a graduate of New College, told a reporter for the Catalyst, the New College student newspaper, that, “Something very wrong is happening in our world. Innocent people’s precious lives are being stolen and destroyed by our criminal justice system.

“These tragedies occur far more often than most people realize,” Greenbaum pointed out. “Corruption, human error and bad practices all lend themselves to the phenomenon of wrongful conviction. Corruption and error are inherent; bad practices are not. We must demand the adoption of well-known but oft disregarded safeguards, such as double-blind line-up protocols. And when corruption is at fault, the responsible actors must be brought to account. Absent the aforementioned, cases like Juan’s and Jamie’s will continue to be routine. They spent a combined 53 years in prison for other men’s crimes and only won their freedom through a combination of luck and dogged determination. Most wrongly convicted inmates are not so fortunate.”

One purpose of the New College forum was to make students aware of the important work that innocence projects are doing across the country. Spearheading this work was The Innocence Project, which was created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld as a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. On its website It has since become “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”

Since the original Innocence Project was established nearly two decades ago, innocence projects have appeared all over the country, with the Innocence Network now including member organizations in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

In its 2010 Annual report, The Innocence Project’s Scheck and Neufeld write that

“While we remain committed to the important work of using DNA evidence to clear those who have been wrongfully convicted, we believe we can do even more to leverage the power of these remarkable stories to bring about fundamental improvement in our deeply flawed criminal justice system.” Establishing more non-DNA based innocence projects is one way to do that.

Rosa Greenbaum told the Catalyst that “Student investigators, working with innocence projects nationwide, have been instrumental in freeing the innocent for nearly two decades now. Lessons of that sort adhere and contribute mightily to a more just society. Students everywhere should be educated about this monstrous stain on our ideals, so that they might confront it as both scholars and citizens. Ending bias in the criminal justice system … which often leads directly to the conviction of the factually innocent, is the civil rights fight of our time. As Juan said in his presentation, we would not stand for slavery or segregation; nor should we stand for their modern equivalent.”

At the time of his release, Juan Roberto Melendez, who had spent nearly eighteen years of his life on death row for a crime he did not commit, was the 99th death row inmate to be exonerated in the U.S. in nearly thirty years.

Now, nearly ten years after Melendez’s release, the number of death row inmates that have been exonerated has swelled to more than 130 in 26 different states since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
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About author Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.