LOS ANGELES—At first glance, Juan Melendez doesn’t look like he'd be the most electrifying public speaker. He’s short and has a greying goatee, and on Friday he wore a T-shirt, black cargo shorts, sneakers, and white socks.
But after he was introduced at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, he quickly launched into his life story: how he spent “17 years, eight months, and one day” on Florida death row for a crime he didn’t commit. He paced purposefully across the stage in the school’s cavernous auditorium, leaning forward, furrowing his brow, and grasping at the air. The 400-some 11th and 12th graders listening were silent, their eyes locked on him.
“There will always be a risk of executing an innocent one,” he told the students in a thick Puerto Rican accent. “Just like we got rid of segregation, just like we got rid of slavery—we can get rid of this madness of the death penalty.”
Californians will vote next month on a referendum to abolish capital punishment in the state, and exonerees like Melendez are the secret weapon of the anti-death penalty campaign. More than 20 people who have spent time on death row for a crime they didn’t commit have flocked to the state to argue against the death penalty in starkly personal terms.
Election day will be a snooze here when it comes to the presidential campaign, but California—which has more people on death row than any other state—will be a major battleground in the nationwide fight over the death penalty. It’s likely that fewer people will be executed in 2016 than any time in 25 years, and support for the death penalty in at its lowest rates in more than 40 years.
There are actually two competing capital punishment measures on the ballot in California: Proposition 62 would end the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole, while Proposition 66—a measure backed by district attorneys and the state prison guard union—would instead speed up executions, removing some legal barriers. If both propositions get a majority, whichever receives more votes will win. Several polls show that voters favor Prop 62, but narrowly and short of a majority, while others show it down.
That’s where the exonerees come in. Activists have identified 156 people across the country who have been exonerated from death row, most of them black and Latino men. That select group are now walking campaign ads against the death penalty. “They’re some of our strongest messengers,” said Jacob Hay, a strategist with the Yes on 62 campaign. “We’ve found that the concept of putting an innocent person to death is a message that moves voters from all perspectives on this issue.”
The most powerful argument for the death penalty has always gone something like this: What if your child was killed? Wouldn’t you want their murderer executed? But the exonerees are putting a new spin on that formulation: What if your child was wrongly accused and sentenced to death for something they didn’t do?
That’s what happened to Melendez. He was arrested in May 1989, when he was 33, and accused of shooting a man he had never met. At the time, he barely spoke English—he grew up in Puerto Rico and most of the English words he knew were “cuss words”—and wasn’t given a Spanish interpreter during his trial. There was no physical evidence implicating him in the crime, and four witnesses confirmed his alibi for the night of the murder. The case against him was based mostly on an informant who got a reduced sentence for testifying.
Some students gasped as Melendez painted a picture of life on death row, describing rats running through his cell, how close he came to suicide, and what it felt like to watch his friends get taken away to the electric chair. His fellow death row inmates, he said, taught him how to read and write and speak English—and how to survive.
Finally, as his appeals drew to a close, a new attorney found a box of old evidence sitting in his former lawyer’s office. It contained a tape recording of another man confessing to the murder Melendez was charged with. He was released on January 3, 2002, making him the 99th death row exoneree.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am angry about what happened,” he said. “I think all exonerees are angry. We should be. However, it’s how you use the anger that counts. My anger gives me strength to do the best I can to abolish the death penalty.”
Now Melendez lives in New Mexico and speaks widely about his experience. He’s visited 13 countries to talk about the death penalty. He told me he felt a responsibility to share his story. “It’s always better when somebody has lived experience,” he said. “They will be more interested in listening to your story. Your own story changes people.”
Each exoneree has a different story of how they ended up on death row—overzealous prosecutors, incompetent attorneys, racist police officers, or just human error. At one Los Angeles event in September, 17 different exonerees gathered to endorse Prop 62.
Opponents of the campaign say the death penalty should be improved instead of being dismantled altogether. And they doubt the idea that more than 150 people have been exonerated, arguing that some of those defendants have actually been released on procedural grounds without necessarily being declared innocent.
“Many of them are guilty murderers who got away with it,” said Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative group that supports Prop 66 and opposes Prop 62.
Others object to Prop 62 from the opposite side. They say that because the measure would instead sentence death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole, it’s nothing more than “death by another name,” as Kenneth Hartman, a lifer in California prison, wrote in The Marshall Project.
But Gary Tyler, who spent 41 and a half years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison for a crime he didn’t commit—part of that on death row, part serving a life sentence—says abolishing the death penalty is a worthy goal in and of itself.
On October 17, 1974, when he was 16 years old, Tyler was taking the bus home with other black students from his high school in Destrehan, LA, a town 25 miles west of New Orleans. A mob of white people attacked the bus, angry that the formerly white-only school had been integrated, and in the scuffle, a 13-year-old white boy was fatally shot. Tyler was arrested and savagely beaten by police officers who wanted him to confess to shooting the boy.
“I didn’t understand that magnitude of what was happening,” he said. “I thought that even after all of that, the jury was going to find me not guilty… I felt I didn’t do anything so they would let me go.”
The case was a litany of injustices: Tyler had a lawyer who had never handled a murder case. The jury was all white. Several witnesses who testified against him later recanted their statements, saying they had been threatened by police officers. Police claimed to have found a gun on the bus, but it disappeared from the evidence room after the trial.
When he was sentenced to death, Tyler became the youngest death row prisoner in the country, before having his sentence reduced to life in prison. But even though an appeals court called his trial “fundamentally unfair” and a state pardon board recommended three times that he be paroled, he wasn’t released until April 2016.
Just six months later, Tyler is an active participant in the Prop 62 campaign. After getting out of Angola, he moved to Pasadena, where he has family, and now regularly gives speeches about what happened to him. “I can serve as a living example of how someone can be unjustly convicted of a crime they didn’t commit,” Tyler, 58, told me in the quiet backyard apartment he now calls home—the first place he’s lived alone in his entire life. “It can happen to you.”
California isn’t the only state with the death penalty on the ballot. In Nebraska, where voters will also get a say on abolishing capital punishment, the anti-death penalty campaign has also used exonerees telling their stories to powerful effect. (In Oklahoma, meanwhile, voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would in effect protect the death penalty from being declared cruel and unusual.)
Telling their stories again and again can take a toll on exonerees. After Melendez finished speaking to the high school students, he sank into a seat in the emptying auditorium, visibly drained, his eyes unfocused and voice raspy.
“When I talk to people, it’s like I’m in a trance,” he told me. “Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it don’t, sometimes it makes me feel better.”
Even when it hurts to relive what he went through, it’s worth it for Melendez. If Prop 62 passes, he said, he thinks other states will follow in ending the death penalty—maybe even Florida, where he still has friends counting down the days to their execution. “If it’s done in California,” he said, “it’s the beginning of the end.”
Correction: This post has been updated to properly reflect the amount of time Gary Tyler spent in prison.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.