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Two men exonerated for capital crimes speak out against death penalty

With the death penalty on trial in Oregon, two men who served time on Death Row in other states before being exonerated of crimes they did not commit will appear in Corvallis this week as part of a speaking tour challenging the validity of executing criminals.

Juan Melendez and Greg Wilhoit are scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. Thursday in the Construction and Engineering Hall at LaSells Stewart Center, 875 S.W. 26th St. Both men were cleared of the accusations against them after spending years in the shadow of the gallows and now tour the country speaking out against capital punishment.

“I think it highlights one of the arguments against the death penalty,” said Brett Burkhardt, an assistant sociology professor at OSU who’s coordinating the event. “Executions are irrevocable — if you make a mistake, someone dies.”

Corvallis lawyer Peter Fahy, a former Lincoln County prosecutor who now serves as a court-appointed defense attorney, will also be on hand to discuss his experiences in capital trials.

The free event, titled “Surviving Death Row,” is part of a four-campus swing through Oregon sponsored by Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Witness to Innocence. Melendez and Wilhoit are to speak at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland on Wednesday and will sandwich their Corvallis appearance Thursday between stops at Willamette University in Salem and Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

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The tour comes in the wake of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s public stance against carrying out death sentences on his watch.

In 2011 Kitzhaber blocked the execution of convicted murderer Gary Haugen on moral grounds. Haugen has appealed that decision, saying he wants to die.

The two sides are scheduled to present oral arguments in the case before the Oregon Supreme Court on March 14.

“The governor stated he wanted to spark a statewide debate about the death penalty in Oregon and the possibility of repeal,” Burkhardt said. “I think he’s been very successful in doing that.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald