When I reached out to an atheist on death row, if you’ll recall, all I really aimed to find out was what life was like behind bars for a heathen. But when Pablo Melendez, Jr. wrote back to me from Texas’ death row, what I got was a glimpse into an absolute travesty of justice.
Pablo wrote to me, kind enough to answer my simple questions about life on death row as an atheist. He barely mentioned his case, but he said just enough that I needed to know more. I couldn’t find much out there on the web and so I asked him for more information on his case. He referred me to a book called, No Justice, No Victory: The Death Penalty in Texas by Susan Lee Campbell Solar. When I looked it up, I was disappointed to find out that the only place willing to ship it to Canada was charging over $60 for it. I couldn’t afford to spend that on a book and so I reached out to you for help. One of you was generous enough to have it sent to me. I can’t thank you enough, because this case, I very strongly believe, needs to have more light shed on it.
In the time since my first posts about Pablo, click here and here for those, I’ve been able to read more about his case and I have also received another letter from him. Today, I’m going to shed some light on the biggest problems in Pablo’s case, and next week, I will publish the latest letter from our fellow infidel on death row in Texas.
The Problems With Pablo’s Case
If you were to buy the State’s version of events, it’d go something like this: Michael Sanders and Tommie Seagraves pull into a car wash late one evening in Fort Worth, Texas. They pull up next to a payphone to make a call when they’re approached by a man wielding a gun demanding their money. Just before midnight, the stranger shoots Seagraves in the neck, and despite Sanders’ pleas to let them go, proceeds to fire his gun at Michael’s back. Michael Sanders is shot four times and falls back into his truck’s cab where he quickly dies from his wounds. Seagraves, however, manages to survive and is able to give the police a pretty detailed description of his assailant. The shooter, very clearly, had a goatee, a ponytail and a tattoo on his right shoulder. Two other eyewitnesses corroborated this description and a composite sketch was drawn up:
Many months after the crime took place, a tip came in that implicated Pablo Melendez, Jr. an 18-year-old gang member who’d had trouble with the law before. They picked Pablo up, mounted a case, tried him and he’s been sitting on death row ever since.
It’s an open-and-shut case, according to the State of Texas. They got the bad guy, he’s set to die, and none of us have to worry about it again (save for Pablo’s family and the prison and medical staff who have to kill him), right?
Wrong. Enter Gracie Jett, the mother of the murder victim, Michael Sanders, who happens to have balls of steel. None of this made sense to her. None of it added up. Gracie wanted to know what happened to her son and so she began her own investigation. The problems in the case she couldn’t get past are as follows:
1. If the shooter was Pablo Melendez, an 18-year-old boy who was, at the time, unable to grow a beard, why did the composite drawing from Seagrave’s description include extensive facial hair? In a parole photo taken a week prior, Pablo’s face was as smooth as a baby’s bottom and his hair neatly trimmed and short. According to Seagraves, the shooter had had a ponytail and a tattoo on his right shoulder, neither of which applied to Pablo. Two other witnesses, totally unrelated and unknown to Seagraves and Melendez, reported the same features on the shooter. Pablo, aside from being Hispanic and male, didn’t match the description in any other way. In fact, he’d had the precise opposite features to those that witnesses had very carefully described.
2. Upon demanding to see photos of her son’s corpse, Gracie discovered he’d been beaten up. According to No Justice, No Victory: The Death Penalty in Texas by Susan Lee Campbell Solar, Gracie said “his nose was broken, his face was skinned above the eye. The report said his eye was swollen.” This contradicts the state’s version of events. Nowhere in their narrative did a beating take place.3. The tip that came in implicating Pablo was from another member of the gang Pablo had belonged to, who was facing 12 years in prison for attempted murder. He was given a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Melendez. His name was Johnny Ayala and his brother-in-law, Robert Gonzalez, Jr., was the gang’s leader, whose brother, Roel Gonzalez, happened to look familiar: he was a dead-ringer for the composite drawing of the suspect in Michael Sanders’ murder.
4. After one of the eyewitnesses testified at trial that the man she saw fleeing the scene was Pablo Melendez, Gracie’s daughter, Mickey approached her. She showed the witness, Susie Carillo, a photo of Pablo and asked if that had been the man she saw. Carillo said no. When Mickey pressed her on why she’d testified it was at trial, Carillo said she’d been in a bad mental state as she’d just lost her son, and the pressure the prosecutors had put on her to identify Melendez had been unbearable. Despite this, she demanded to see the suspects in a lineup – demands that went ignored. And so, in her weakened mental state, she broke down and did as the prosecutors asked.
5. Nearly all of the state’s witnesses against Melendez were related in some way or another to the man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the composite drawing, Roel Gonzalez. He even had a tattoo where the description said the killer had one and where, at the time of the killing, Melendez had none. The gang members who testified against Melendez also walked away with the reward money for tips in this case.
6. The testimony of eyewitnesses, such as Jeffrey Jackson, had been excluded from the trial and kept from the defence team – testimony that would have painted an entirely different story of what went down that night. When the defense team tracked Jackson down he said, without hesitation, that he’d be happy to go on the record with his version of events. When they returned several days later to have him sign his statement, the BBQ restaurant owner suddenly had a different tone and refused as though he’d been threatened. Jackson later ignored a subpoena to appear in court and give his testimony and there is physical evidence, in the form of a note from the prosecutor’s desk, that implies they’d been in contact with Jackson about the matter, perhaps even suggesting that he would face no consequences if he didn’t show up to testify.
7. Pablo Melendez, it is claimed by the prosecution, confessed to the crime, but his confession consisted of nothing more than the admission he didn’t know if he did it or not because he had been so high. The “confession” was also written in English, which he did not speak, read or write at the time he was asked to sign it. Recall, he was an 18-year-old boy at the time. He also didn’t know how to read or write in his native Spanish.
When you break it down, the case against Melendez rests on two things: a tip from his fellow gang member who got, in exchange for his testimony, less time in prison for the charge he’d been facing and the testimony of his fellow gang members who, in testifying, took reward money and deflected the spotlight from their leader’s brother, who looked exactly like the composite sketch of the suspect.
If you were to tell me there was a better case that illustrated reasonable doubt, I’d not believe you. There is ample reasonable doubt here, and the state of Texas is getting ready to kill this man.
In 1999, Pablo’s appeal was denied. You can read the decision here.
If this doesn’t alarm you, someone needs to shake you awake. Get the defib paddles out and check your pulse, because you should be boiling. Especially you, Texans. They’re taking your tax money and they’re going to use it to kill a man who may very well be innocent. If you’re not absolutely livid, you simply haven’t got a heart.
We know Pablo had been in trouble before. We know he struggled with addiction and was headed down a path that was going to lead to prison or death at some point or another. We know he wasn’t exactly a stand-up citizen, but there is no evidence, whatsoever, that suggests he’s killed anyone, ever.
Gracie Jett and her daughter Mickey both strongly believe that the wrong man is being punished for Michael’s murder. So much so, that both of them have made repeated contact with Pablo. Mickey has even gone to visit him on death row. They are certain that the man who killed their beloved son and brother is Roel Gonzalez and it would appear he’s gotten away with it.
What are your thoughts on Pablo’s case? What questions do you have for him that I can send in my next letter? Let me know in the comments!
Stay tuned next week for the latest letter from Pablo. Make sure you’re subscribed using the form in the upper right sidebar or follow me on Twitter: @godless_mom
If you would like to write to Pablo or send him books to read (he was amazed to find out there are atheist books), let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org