Innocent, Incarcerated, and Years Lost.

Imagine being sentenced and placed in prison for a crime that you did not commit. Doesn’t it give you chills just thinking about it? I know that when I imagine myself in a situation like that, I immediately begin to panic.  And know what the saddest part of this is, well, it’s sad that it happens often, in this country of freedom.  Now I know that some of you may be quick to argue that this is the land of freedom but not everyone has had that same experience.  Of these people, you can find Juan Roberto Melendez and Greg Wilhoit, men who spent a combined 23 years of their lives on death row before being exonerated.

While I won’t go much into depth regarding their cases—you can always go to this link and read their stories with more detail.

So with that said, I want to talk more about the experience that I had while attending this event.  I must admit that while I sat in my chair, I began to feel antsy about being able to see the men who were stripped of their freedom for years. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine how both of these men felt as they repeatedly claimed their innocence without avail.  I mean, how would you feel about being threatened repeatedly with losing your life (death penalty) if you did not admit to committing the crime at hand, when you were innocent? I also wondered what each man would be like—Bitter? Happy? Angry with your criminal justice system?

Juan was the first to speak and I must say that he is such a great, lively speaker! He re-told his story in a way that made you feel like you were experiencing what he did.  It almost made me feel like I was watching a movie.  What also surprised me was the fact that although Juan had given up many years of his life for a crime that he did not commit, he did not seem bitter; rather, he seemed grateful. Grateful to be free.  I especially enjoyed when he stated to his audience that he did not “understand why people get bored, when there are simple things in life to enjoy.” That sentence alone made me realize that his words are true. We should enjoy everything in life, whether it be good or bad.

Next to speak was Greg. Greg was a more timid, quiet man.  He went on to explain his story with much detail, and you can tell that it still affected him greatly to repeat his story.  He would be silent for a few seconds, apologize, and then continue where he left off.  Greg was been accused of murdering his wife, and just like Juan, he repeated his innocence various times without any acknowledgment.  Rather, he was repeatedly threatened with the sentence of a death penalty if he did not tell “the truth”. Can you imagine, not being able to tell the truth because you will die, while lying would go against your morals and will land you in prison anyway.  So what do you choose? Either way, evidence was later brought forth that helped exonerate Greg.

Overall, the stories of each of these men made me realize two major points. One, the criminal justice is not perfect, and sometimes, instead of serving justice, it creates unjust situations.  Second, there should be more awareness about the Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, also known as OADP.  The mission of this organization is to “repeal the death penalty in Oregon as an essential step toward a more cost-effective, humane, and restorative response to violent crime, and thus toward safer, more peaceful and just communities.”  In case you are interested in learning more about this organization, I will provide a link.

It seems that both of these men provided me an opportunity to reflect upon my own life. Their stories served as lessons for me. All I can say is that if these two men ever make their way on this campus again, you should all take the opportunity to hear their life changing stories. I would also like to take the time to thank both Juan and Greg for taking time out of their lives to share their stories.

By Antonia Rojas 

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