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Facing the faces: Scott Christianson.

photo:Alicia Solsman

Death Penalty Paper Trail
y Rick Marshall

New archive makes UAlbany the international center for research on capital punishment


‘Every time the suicide thoughts came to my mind, I laid down and dreamed beautiful dreams of my childhood,” says Juan Melendez, an 18-year resident of Florida’s death row. His otherwise deep voice sounds a little lighter at this point in the recorded interview, and there’s a brief pause in the tale—as if he has found a happy moment within this sad story, and wants to dwell on it for a bit before continuing on. “I would start dreaming I was a little kid again and doing the things I used to do that would make me happy.”

“The first 10 years, it was real hard for me,” he continues, his voice growing deeper again. “But being innocent . . . you always believe the truth will come out.”

Convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder in 1984, Melendez spent almost two decades in state prison before being exonerated. He was on his last appeal, he says, with his attorney telling him he’d be lucky to live another year, when the evidence was discovered that eventually set him free: a taped confession from the true killer and various corroborating materials buried in assorted files belonging to his first attorney. His case was reopened, new evidence and witnesses were presented, and the prosecution quickly abandoned its case against him. Melendez was finally set free in 2001 after spending nearly two decades on death row.

Describing the circumstances leading up to his long imprisonment, Melendez says the jury was selected on a Monday, briefed on Tuesday and presented with the evidence against him—an acquaintance who named Melendez as the murderer in order to plead down a case of his own—on Wednesday.

“On Thursday they found me guilty, and on Friday, they sentenced me to death,” he continues with an audible sigh. He knew very little English at the time of his trial (“If I knew five words in English, two of them would have been curse words,” he remarks), and says it wasn’t until he learned to read and write in prison that he became fully aware of how flawed was the whirlwind, five-day process that decided whether he would live or die.

“That is how I was convicted,” he remembers. “And the judge complained that it was taking too long.”

Bringing scholars together: (l-r) UAlbany professors James Acker and Charles Lanier.

photo: Alicia Solsman

Recorded in April 2004, the 30-minute interview with Melendez was conducted by Charles Lanier, a professor at University at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice. It is just one of many personal histories collected and preserved in the university’s new National Death Penalty Archives, a collection of legal papers, academic correspondence, interviews and other information on the death penalty housed in the university’s M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives.

Initially conceived as a way to facilitate communication between criminal justice scholars, professionals and the public, the archive has quickly become both an official and behind-the-scenes history of the nation’s long relationship with capital punishment. And for many of those involved with the archive project—whether facilitating its creation, contributing their stories and research or preparing its contents for public exposure—the archive project provides something even more: formal recognition of the value in their experiences, passions and lives’ work.

According to Lanier, who serves as codirector of the school’s recently established Capital Punishment Research Initiative, the idea for such an archive—a central clearinghouse for all things capital-punishment related—had been floating around criminal-justice circles for a long time. With many of the most prominent figures in the national debate over capital punishment reaching the twilight of their lives, there was a very real chance of losing their accumulated knowledge and experience, says Lanier. Recent high-profile debates in many states regarding capital punishment only solidified the need for such an information hub, he adds.

Despite all of those conditions, however, it took a well-timed call and a crowded basement to truly set the archive project in motion.

“It really all started with [Southern Methodist University professor] Rick Halperin,” explains James Acker, also a criminal justice professor at UAlbany and the other codirector of CPRI. “We knew all this information was out there, and we were trying to come up with the best way to get it all in one place where it could be preserved and accessible, when [Halperin] sent a message out that his basement was full, and wanted to know if anyone wanted his records.”

“We decided to go for it—that this was our chance to get the archive started,” says Acker.

Lanier says he and Acker quickly accepted Halperin’s dozen-or-so boxes of clippings, fliers, organizational materials and other research in 1999, and queried other policymakers, academics and professionals involved with criminal justice about their willingness to make similar donations. Having collected a list of people who would be willing to donate, they went to the university and fashioned an agreement to maintain the collection. Then they put out an official call for contributions.

And while Lanier says the speed at which the boxes started arriving was a pleasant surprise, it was this summer’s unveiling of the first portion of the archive that had been indexed, prepared and made ready for public consumption—around 400 boxes of records—that provided a real sense of accomplishment for many of those involved in the project.

“There will be some who will insist that such an archive as this belongs in New York [City], Boston or Philadelphia . . . and not in an upstate branch of the state university,” announced Tufts University professor Hugo Bedau, one of the nation’s foremost capital punishment scholars, at the dedication of the archive. Bedau was one of several prominent figures whose records will be featured in the collection to attend the ceremony.

Professional packrat: Brian Keough, head of UAlbany’s special collections department.

photo:Alicia Solsman

“My reply is this,” continued Bedau. “It was open to any scholar or librarian to undertake in New York, Boston or Philadelphia—only no scholar or team of scholars at any of the major universities in those cities undertook to do so.”

“All the more praise for the Albany team,” he added.

Yet, for many of those involved with the project, the decision to house such a one-of-a-kind collection here was an obvious choice.

“New York was the Texas of the early 20th century,” explains Scott Christianson, an award-winning local author and journalist who will be contributing some of his own records and research to the archive. According to Christianson, New York’s immense immigrant population—and the persecution that accompanied such a population—allowed the state to achieve one of the highest rates of execution in the nation for many years.

This, along with UAlbany’s status as one of the top criminal-justice schools in the nation, makes the university more than appropriate to play host to such a project, say the archive’s facilitators.

“[The archive] fits nicely in one of the major chapters in the history of New York,” says UAlbany president Kermit Hall, a legal historian who says he expects the archive to attract both domestic and international scholars.

“New York has historically been one of the places that that has had the greatest debates over capital punishment,” adds Hall, citing the state’s on-again, off-again relationship with the death-penalty statute. The statute was declared unconstitutional five years ago, and last year state lawmakers declined to reach an agreement on any amendments that would make capital punishment legal again, essentially leaving the penalty in a state of limbo. Transcripts from the legislative hearings on capital punishment conducted last year by the state Legislature are one of the more recent additions to the archive.

And it’s that aspect of the project’s philosophy, says Christianson—a desire to simply provide raw information from anyone connected to capital punishment and let members of the public make their own judgments—that convinced him to add some of his 30 years of experience with criminal-justice issues into the mix.

“[Acker and Lanier] understand that archives are about putting all the information out there and letting it speak for itself,” he says. “It’s important to contemplate these sort of things—not in a ghoulish way, but as a matter of historic importance.”

Among the items from Christianson’s collection likely to be housed in the archive are a few of the rare photographs and indices he was able to collect from the case files of inmates executed at Sing Sing Penitentiary. Previously seen only by prison officials, the 140 mug shots and lists of items left behind by prisoners after their executions were organized by Christianson into both a book and touring exhibit.

American duty: A telegram from Christianson’s collection of Sing Sing artifacts.

According to Acker, the preservation of exactly those sorts of details—the personal stories of death-row inmates and victims’ families, and the stories behind capital prosecutors’ files and academics’ research—is one of the most fundamental goals of the archive.

While the majority of the archive’s boxes have yet to be properly preserved and indexed, those that have been prepared for public use thus far already have proven to be well worth the 10 to 15 hours of handling each box requires, according to Brian Keough, head of the university’s Department of Special Archives and Collections.

According to Keough, after each box of material arrives, the content is checked for metal staples, paper clips or anything else that might discolor the papers, paying close attention to the order of the documents in order to “preserve context.” The contents of the boxes are then moved into acid-free folders or other such containers until department staff—students, in most cases—can go through the box and create a summary of its contents. Once all of these steps are completed, the materials are made available for public use—or, in the case of some of the more fragile materials, copies are made available.

“When it first comes in, a lot of it looks like someone just emptied out their filing cabinet,” says Keough as he flips past a folder marked “Ford, character references, 1981” in one of the archive’s processed collections. The case files of Alvin Ford, a schizophrenic convicted of murdering a police officer in 1974, were donated by one of Ford’s attorneys. The case is regarded by many historians as the first to question the constitutionality of executing the mentally ill.

Among the contents of the files is a handwritten letter from Ford to the former governor of Florida, Bob Martinez, asking the governor to sign his death warrant. There is also a letter from one of Ford’s first attorneys, Richard H. Burr III, addressed to Connie Ford, Alvin’s mother. Dated April 13, 1984, the letter was written just a few weeks before Alvin’s death warrant was signed for a second time (he was granted a stay of execution 14 hours before his first appointment with the electric chair).

“All that we can continue to do is to continue to reach out to Alvin,” the letter reads. “He is there, somewhere, and it may be best for him, and for us, that he stays where he is. If we can win life, perhaps we can win health.”

Reading through the Ford collection, the frustrations described by Ford’s legal representatives offer up the sort of personal perspective on capital punishment rarely achieved by its presentation in mainstream media. One set of papers details the frustrations that arise when Ford’s mother and attorney make a daylong trip to the prison in Tallahassee, only to have Ford refuse to see visitors. Another has Burr expressing his consternation to the governor about Ford’s state-appointed psychiatrists’ failure to comment on his client’s “adamant belief that he has won his case.”

And, as if to provide a reprieve from the chronicle of disappointments and frustrations contained within the file, a simple Christmas card can be found sandwiched between a stack of psychiatric evaluations, sent to Ford’s attorney by Connie Ford. Inside the card, she thanks the attorney for fighting to keep her child alive.

Not all of the archive’s contents are of an anti-death-penalty bent, though the material opposed to the death penalty far outweighs the material in support. The difference is simply due to a lack of available material, explains Acker.

“In the past, you didn’t get organized and active support in defense of accepted practices,” offers Acker. With many states only recently deciding to remove their longstanding death- penalty statutes, there hasn’t been much time for studies and research to come out of the pro-death-penalty camp, he says. When the research does become available, though, he says he hopes it will find a home in the archive.

“It’s our aspiration to get as much information as possible,” he adds. “It’s tremendously important for the information to just be out there in the public eye.”

There is some pro-death-penalty material there. For example, the archive houses the files of Ernest van den Haag, one of the 20th century’s leading death-penalty advocates. Among the contents of these files is a personal letter from Richard Nixon to van den Haag, in which then-President Nixon writes that the conservative scholar’s recent appearance on The Dick Cavett Show has come his attention. Nixon goes on to complement van den Haag on his “balanced, and very effective discussion.”

In many ways, these individual records of advocates for and against capital punishment can provide significant insight behind the curtain of public policy—for instance, a 1985 letter from an editor at The National Review to van den Haag, in which the editor cites a study connecting the death penalty to crime deterrence and asks van den Haag, “Are these guys right? If so, would you like to write 900 words saying they are?”

And for some, it’s the correspondence between two unlike minds that provide the archive’s most intriguing content.

“Here are two major academics writing back and forth about something they don’t see eye-to-eye on at all,” says Keough, indicating one of his personal favorites in the collection: a series of correspondence between William Bowers, the administrator of a national research project studying how capital juries reach their final decisions, and Isaac Ehrlich, a death-penalty scholar who famously argued that for every criminal executed, seven murders were prevented.

Unlike many of the archive’s collections, which are donated after they outlive their usefulness to their original owners, Bowers’ research is one of the archive’s still-active collections. In fact, Bowers recently moved both his ongoing Capital Jury Project and his extensive collection of capital jury research out of Northeastern University and into the Albany archives, where the jury study will continue.

This desire to remain nonideological has come with its share of problems, too. According to Lanier, many of the groups that typically provide funding for death-penalty research tend to push for one position or the other on the controversial issue—leaving CPRI and the archive in a “can’t please anybody” position when it comes to potential donors.

Nevertheless, both Acker and Lanier agree that the most important part of the archive project—convincing people that their files were better off in the university’s collection than in their basements—seems to have gained enough momentum to let them begin looking toward the other goals they established for the research initiative. Along with bringing Bowers’ Jury Project to Albany, Lanier and Acker hope to continue creating personal accounts of how capital punishment has affected people’s lives—much like the Melendez interview—and encouraging their students to do the same.

During a recent discussion with criminal-justice students at the university’s downtown campus, Bowers, who has been involved with capital-punishment research since before many of the students around him were born, seems almost giddy when discussing the potential of the CPRI and the archives.

“When it comes to criminal-justice research, you are all at the mecca now,” he tells them. “As far as I’m concerned, this has become the best place I know to be.”

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