No matter how much people want to be “color-blind” and think that race no longer matter in our modern world, I’ve found from personal experience, disturbing ways in which not only race, but other factors such as socioeconomic class, still influence many aspects of American society. I am taking Criminology and this class has opened my eyes as to how much race influences our justice system, something that is supposed to be inherently equal for all.

We are currently discussing death row cases and race and class, unsurprisingly, have a great deal to do with who gets convicted. In death row cases, the jury is handpicked a certain way: all the jurors must be “death eligible”. This means that they must be willing to sentence another human to death for a crime. Research shows that African Americans and Hispanics are less likely than whites to be “death eligible” and men are more likely than women to support the death penalty. This leaves death penalty cases with a very homogenous jury: white males. This causes a problem since the jury is supposed to be a group of your peers, which includes people of color and both sexes, not just whites and males.

With this background information, I’d like to share the particular case of Juan Melendez, a poor migrant worker, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Puerto Rico and spoke little English. He spent almost 18 years on Florida’s death row. He was arrested for murder and armed robbery on the following basis: he had a missing tooth and a tattoo. The murderer had a missing tooth and a tattoo. Melendez was too poor to hire a lawyer and so was appointed one. His lawyer did not speak Spanish and Melendez had no idea what was going on with his trial. He faced a jury of all whites and one African American man, none of whom spoke Spanish. There was no physical evidence against Melendez and two African Americans took to the stand as his alibi, but they were dismissed. The entire conviction was based on two false witnesses, one who held a grudge against Melendez and the other who falsely testified to lessen his sentence. In a trial that lasted a week, he was sentenced to death.

In the film, “Juan Melendez 6446”, one of the lawyers present describes how Melendez had a big afro that he refused to cut. The lawyer relates conversations where jury members and prosecutors alike conceded that he must be a criminal because of his hairstyle (which is as senseless, baseless, and odd a conclusion as “Asians are bad drivers” or “all Black people love fried chicken”). Furthermore, a month before Melendez was set to go to trial, the real murderer confessed to the crime to several people, including prosecutors for the case. This evidence was not disclosed because by that time, the prosecutors had already declared Melendez to be guilty. They could not reverse their statement without admitting there was a fault in the system. Faults are allowed to exist within the system, but admitting them is out of the question.

Here are links that elaborate on Melendez’s case:

Stories of the Exonerated: Juan Melendez

A Dead Man Walking Toward Freedom?

Cases like these are unfortunately not rare and they make me lose faith in the justice system. The system is supposed to be fair and just for all, but this does not seem to be the case. Racial stereotyping is found in every tier of the justice system and minority races stereotyped and convicted at a much higher rate than whites. Juan Melendez was arrested and convicted because he “looked like a criminal”. He was a poor migrant worker with no family in the U.S., so who would notice that he was gone? His case reflects the attitude that some races are expendable and in order to save face, many innocent people end up on death row despite the lack of evidence.


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