Back to the beginning

CARLISLE- The last time Juan Melendez was in Carlisle, he was about to start his descent into hell. On May 2, 1984, Melendez, who was then a migrant worker who worked the orchards of Cumberland County, was arrested for a murder someone else committed. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death in Florida.

Last night Melendez returned to Carlisle for the first time since his arrest and told his story to a crowd of more than 70 people at Penn State Dickinson School of Law. The event was co-sponsored by the ACLU chapter at DSL, the Latino/a Law Student Association, the Black Law Student Association, the Amnesty International USA chapter, and Books 2 Prisoners.

Melendez was convicted on the testimony of two “witnesses.” One was a police informant, aka a snitch, who claimed that Melendez had confessed to him. The other “witness” was the alleged co-conspirator, who struck a deal to testify against Melendez and was given two years probation.

The trial started on a Monday. By Thursday, Melendez was convicted, and by Friday, he was sentenced to death.

During his talk, he described the conditions on death row. The jail was infested with rats and roaches. Mealtime was always an adventure. Meals were placed in a slot in the cell door, and it was a race to see who could get the food first, the inmate or the rats and roaches.

“Breakfast? Forget it,” Melendez said. If you weren’t awake to get it, you weren’t getting it, he added.

His experience on death row nearly led Melendez to suicide. He was severely depressed and even acquired the materials he needed to hang himself. When he was ready to go forward, he thought, ‘I better think about this some more.’

Melendez was exonerated and released in 2002 when his new attorney discovered a taped confession from the real killer. The tape had been in the possession of both the prosecutors and the original defense attorney one month before Melendez’s original trial. The judge threw out the conviction and chastised the trial judge, the district attorney, and the original defense attorneys in a 72-page opinion.

“I was not saved by the system,” Melendez said. “I was saved in spite of the system.”

Last night Melendez was clear about his feelings on the death penalty.

“The worst of all is when the government kills,” he said. “Believe me, (more death row prisoners) are innocent.”

Melendez encouraged the audience to join him in fighting capital punishment.

“The problem with the death penalty is it’s about education,” he said. “It’s about the details. We’ve got to teach people about it. We’ve got to teach them it’s cruel. We’ve got to teach them it’s racist. We’ve got to teach them it’s not a deterrent to crime.”

The ACLU of PA encourages community groups, schools, and anyone who can possibly do so to host a talk with a death row exoneree. These talks can be arranged through our ally, Witness to Innocence.

Andy in Harrisburg

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US Attorneys scandal: The civil liberties angle

It appears two of the US Attorneys among the eight who were dismissed were not trying to kill people with as much zeal as the AG (be it Ashcroft or Gonzo) like. In a story that was first out there a few years ago, the DOJ overruled US Attorneys on multiple occasions when the local prosecutor opted to pursue a life sentence.

But long before this controversy shed light on the political maneuvering between the White House and the Justice Department, two of the fired attorneys were engaged in a largely invisible internal struggle with the Justice Department over its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty.

Both Paul Charlton of Arizona and Margaret Chiara of Michigan have been criticized for failing to seek death sentences with sufficient gusto. Both US Attorneys were pressured to participate in an aggressive campaign begun by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and continued by Gonzales to extend the federal death penalty–particularly into jurisdictions without death-penalty statutes of their own.

Apparently, the Bush Administration has not gotten the memo that the death penalty is on the way out. According to Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center:

“The size of the federal death row has almost tripled from 2000 to the present, during a time when state death row numbers have declined.” Indeed, the expansion of the federal death penalty is in direct opposition to declining death penalty trends throughout the country–yet another example of the Bush Administration’s deliberate disconnect from its constituents.

(Courtesy Abolish the Death Penalty)

Andy in Harrisburg

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Live from Guantánamo Bay

The Guantánamo Bay military commission proceedings began today under new, flawed rules. The ACLU is one of four organizations that have been granted status as human rights observers at theese proceedings. When the tribunals began in 2004, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero and three ACLU lawyers attended the proceedings and blogged about the experience so Americans could know the truth of Guantánamo. The organization’s participation continues today with Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney. Wizner’s blog posts are available here.

Our government is holding children as young as 2 in prison-like conditions

With all of this focus on immigration the last two weeks, how appropriate that national ACLU has released a short video about an immigrant detention facility in Texas. In their words…

This two-minute Freedom Files video short provides a shocking glimpse into conditions at a Texas facility to detain immigrants run by the Department of Homeland Security. Of the approximately 400 detainees at the Hutto Detention Facility, many are children who belong to refugee families seeking political asylum in the U.S. after escaping persecution in their country of origin.

The video introduces viewers to children like two-year-old Angie and her older sister Nixcari, who had been confined for months in the bleak, barbed-wire encased Hutto facility, where children wear prison garb and are held in small cells for the majority of each day. Recreational time is severely limited as are educational opportunities. Access to medical, dental and mental health treatment is inadequate. From one mother who was confined with her 12-year-old: “…a psychological trauma my daughter and I will carry with us for the rest of our lives.”

Watch the video.

Andy in Harrisburg

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"It’s not easy fighting City Hall"

Thursday, March 22

The final day of the Hazleton trial opened with the news that the Hazleton City Council had passed yet another revision of its anti-immigrant ordinance the previous night. As plaintiffs attorney Vic Walczak said ruefully, “It’s a little difficult when the target keeps moving.”

Vic Walczak gave the closing argument for the plaintiffs. He spoke about the bravery of the clients, and said “it’s not easy fighting City Hall.” He acknowledged that public opinion is not necessarily with the plaintiffs in the case, but it’s “not a popularity contest. The Constitution protects everybody–even the minority.”

Walczak cited to the dictionary definition of the word scapegoat: “one that bears blame for others; object of irrational hostility.” He painted a picture of a mayor and a city council who claimed illegal immigrants were “the cause of all Hazleton’s woes, and by extension, this nation’s woes” with absolutely no investigation or evidence.

He pointed out that Hazleton does not have the financial troubles it claims, and in fact, the influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, to Hazleton have played a large role in the revitalization of the city. In 2000, before the influx, they had a $1.2 million deficit. That is now a surplus. The town saw its largest increase in property values last year, part of three consecutive years of increases. The town’s net assets are up 18%, and the towns bond rating is AAA. Hazleton is in “pretty good financial shape.”

In passing the ordinance, Hazleton cited the toll illegal immigrants have taken on the schools and the hospital. However, students from Hazleton make up only 43% of the total number in the school district, and it has never endorsed this ordinance. The hospital, allegedly struggling under the burden of providing services to illegal immigrants, managed to turn a $4 million profit last year.

The centerpiece of Mayor Barletta’s claims for needing the ordinance has always been crime. Although the number of crimes in Hazleton has indeed increased, the population has increased by a greater percent. What does that mean? That the per capita crime rate now is actually lower than it was five years ago. (These figures came directly from charts provided by the city.) The mayor has said he “doesn’t need figures to know the story.”

By accounts on both sides, before the ordinance there had been “relative harmony” between the native-born residents in Hazleton and the new immigrants. The mayor’s PR campaign and the ordinance have put an end to that and have “promoted hostility toward the immigrant community,” said Walczak

The judge asked if the plaintiffs needed to file a fourth version of the complaint, given that Hazleton had changed the ordinance yet again. He seemed perplexed as to how to handle this aspect, saying “I’ve never had this happen to me before.” Walczak argued (in the legal sense) that unless there’s a declaration that the law that had been passed was unconstitutional, there was no legal bar to the city reverting back to the original version.

Interestingly, after months of playing to emotions about the ordinance, the attorney for the other side, Kris Kobach, stuck purely to the law in his closing statement. He stated the other side had spent “twenty minutes offering you a story. I’m not going to waste the court’s time telling a story of quoting from the dictionary. I’ll go straight to the law.” He proceeded to argue that the plaintiffs did not have standing and that Hazleton was not preempting federal law.

He made the claim that contrary to what the plaintiffs argued, it was possible to find out easily someone’s immigration status, and that it was a cut-and-dried definition. He said that the city did not need scientific evidence of the problems with illegal immigrants, just a rational belief.

Several times Kobach claimed that the plaintiffs filed prematurely, and that therefore there was no way to know if the ordinance provided adequate due process or would be applied discriminatorily. He also assured the court that Hazleton’s code enforcement office would provide a warning to a violator and not immediately enforce these provisions. The judge asked “do we look at the practice? Or the policy?” He went on to say that in every community, enforcement of the law is often “based on who you are.”

Kobach also claimed the ordinances had been “painstakingly crafted.” (An interesting claim, given how many times they’ve been revised.)

Several times the judge mentioned how “convoluted” this case is. He said that the “lawyering was very spirited” and complimented both sides on “brilliant closings.”

Given the amount of paper already submitted to the court in the case, the judge asked that each sides findings of fact be limited to 20-30 pages and not be repetitive of prior briefs. They are to be filed by May 7th.

After arguments concluded, lawyers on both sides took time to give press interviews and check out their portraits as drawn by a local artist for a national television network. Outside, as Walczak left the phalanx of cameramen and reporters to head back to his hotel, a spectator standing on the side walk approached him. “Are you with Hazleton?” he asked hopefully. After receiving a “no,” the man said “Too bad. I want Hazleton to pass this thing so that we can get one here in Scranton. We gotta get those people out of here.”

Sara in Philly

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It was only a matter of time

N.J. KKK group plans to hold rally in Hazleton

UPDATE, 10:37am: And here’s a telling quote from a PSU prof from a Times Leader story on the same topic.

A Penn State professor claims Hazleton’s ordinances embolden people with a predisposition to prejudice to act on their feelings and serve as a rallying point for hate groups.

“Look at the rhetoric of these ordinances and their emphasis on protecting Americans from the influx of undesirable outsiders,” said Amir Marvasti, an assistant professor of sociology at the Altoona campus. “It’s not very different from the language of hate groups and their obsessions with preserving the purity of the white race.”

Andy in Harrisburg

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They "come here to here to the land of hope and dreams to make a better life"

One of our staff members is attending today’s closing arguments at the Hazleton anti-immigrant trial in Scranton, and we will have a report later today. In the meantime, here is some media coverage of yesterday’s proceedings and the first dispatch from the AP about the closing statement by ACLU-PA legal director Vic Walczak.

AP (by way of Centre Daily Times): ACLU: Hazleton demonized illegal immigrants to justify crackdown

Times Leader: Defense witnesses talk gang activity

The Republican & Herald: In last day of tesimony, experts defend Hazleton’s ordinance

Also, a reader commented on my post from last Saturday, “Postcard from Scranton,” and reminded me that some of our plaintiffs in the Dover trial also received threatening hate mail. Although we tend to look back on the Dover intelligent design trial with a level of fondness, it was not all fun and games, and the reader’s comment reminded me that after the decision Judge Jones required protection from US Marshalls for a time due to death threats.

When elected officials and other public figures use religion, ethnicity, or other factors to divide communities, it tends to bring out the worst in people.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Another "expert" from the defense

Hazleton trial, Wednesday, March 21

We were not able to send a blogger to Scranton today for the continued proceedings of the Hazleton anti-immigrant trial, but we did touch base with our legal team at the lunch break.

This morning the defense called two Hazleton police officers, Detective Orozco, who heads the recently formed street gang unit, and Detective Zola, the head of the narcotics unit. Both officers emphasized that there is a problem with drugs and gangs in Hazleton.

However, on cross-examination, it became clear that their definition of a gang is two or three people. In addition and most importantly for this case, actual evidence of a connection between gang activity and undocumented immigrants is low. In fact, the overall level of gang activity in the city appears to be relatively low.

And the connection to the ordinances and how they would suppress gang activity is not clear.

The defense also called Jared Lewis, the founder of, as an “expert” witness on gang activity. Mr. Lewis offers himself as a gang expert after serving “for a short period of time” as a police officer. He attended college for two years but did not finish and does not have a post-secondary degree. He stated that he gets all of the knowledge he needs from the streets. He has written one article that was not peer-reviewed.

Now, there is nothing wrong with not having a degree. There is an expectation, though, that an expert witness has some type of academic background. As an example, it’s difficult to undertake research without knowledge of research methodology.

In addition, Lewis has no firsthand knowledge of Hazleton, other than driving through town yesterday. The opinions he offered are supposedly based on a phone call he received from Detective Orrosco.

In addition to today’s testimony, Judge Munley did not allow a law professor from Temple University to be admitted as an expert for the defense because the judge found that the professor had nothing to offer that was relevant to the case.

After lunch, Lewis will continue to testify. The defense will also call Michael Cutler, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former INS agent.

Andy in Harrisburg

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