In late April, eighteen death row exonerees and their family members gathered in Puerto Rico to celebrate their Annual Gathering in conjunction with the 90th anniversary of abolition in Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, Spanish-speakers Juan Meléndez from Puerto Rico and Joaquín Martinez from Spain spoke to the public at Universidad Ana G. Mendez at Carolina about their experiences being wrongfully convicted and serving time on death row.
The same day, other WTI exonerees and members arrived -- including Laverne Thompson, death penalty abolition activist and wife of deceased exoneree John Thompson, and the granddaughters of deceased exoneree Delbert Tibbs. The group was greeted by an official welcome from the President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Kevin Rivera.
Friday was a community outreach and speaking day. The exonerees dispersed across the metropolitan area, speaking at various universities and high schools.
In the afternoon, they gathered at the Puerto Rico Capitol building for an official reception with members of the Congress including Senator Vargas Vidot and Senator Zoe Laboy Alvarado. On April 24th, the Puerto Rican Senate had approved unanimously a resolution commemorating the 90th anniversary of staturory abolition in the Island.
The speakers all fervently spoke out against the death penalty and commended the exonerees for their courageous fight for abolition. Senator Laboy Alvarado stated: "Once you have sentenced a person to death, there’s no way back... Prosecutors and judges are human, so there’s a big chance that there is a mistake being made, but once that person is executed there is no way back.”
Juan Meléndez was surprised by his mother and aunt, who still live in Puerto Rico. Juan was also presented with a resolution in his honor approved by the legislature of the municipality of Maunabo, his hometown.
WTI was also presented with a resolution of the legislature of the municipality of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, to honor our efforts fighting for death penalty abolition. The event was filled with passion, hope, and a steadfast commitment to criminal justice reform and death penalty repeal.
The remainder of the Annual Gathering was reserved for death row exonerees to spend time together, sharing stories and discussing their plans for future to double down on efforts for abolition. This time in Puerto Rico allowed WTI exonerees, family members, staff, and Board Members to recommit to the cause; celebrating the 90th anniversary of abolition on the island only strengthened our resolve to achieve abolition nationwide -- state by state and federally.