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Death Row Inmate’s Rare Acceptance of Responsibility

A friend once questioned how I could actually like someone who is on San Quentin’s death row. Especially someone whose crimes are as vicious as those of James A. Melton.

The answer is, I don’t know. I do know it will be a melancholy day for me when Melton finally enters the death chamber, as Thomas Thompson did Tuesday. And I don’t see much chance of Melton’s escaping that fate.

The tragedy is that Melton, now 46, waited too late to begin a self-evaluation of what character flaws led him to this fate. But the Melton case is memorable to me, I’m sure, because it’s the only time that an inmate facing execution has ever asked my help.

Eleven years ago, I interviewed both Melton and another killer, John Visciotti, at San Quentin State Prison.

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I had written to 16 death row inmates seeking interviews. Only Melton said yes. But near the end of our interview, Visciotti showed up; he had changed his mind.

Melton was introspective, Visciotti a whiner. Melton was easy to engage in meaningful conversation; Visciotti rarely shut up long enough to let me squeeze in a question.

Melton, accompanied by his attorney, John F. Kane, did not admit to the murder that got him there. But he did say that he’d engaged in deep soul searching to discover where his life had gone so wrong.

In that interview, and subsequent conversations with Melton, there was a side to him that grew on me. Unlike Visciotti, he doesn’t blame others for his dilemma.

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“I could be bitter,” he said, “but at who?”

In many years of interviews at penitentiaries, I’ve found acceptance of responsibility a rarity. That said, you wouldn’t want to face Melton on the street. His deeds are enough to make you shudder.

Trial evidence showed that Melton was in prison on a rape conviction when he and his cellmate began planning their next crime. They would search the ads in gay magazines, find some lonesome but rich homosexual, ingratiate themselves to him, kill him and take his money.

Once freed, they found such a victim, a 77-year-old Newport Beach hairdresser. But before they could pull off the murder, Melton’s old cellmate got busted for another crime and wound up in the Los Angeles County Jail. Melton went ahead alone. He was caught with the dead man’s car and some of the items taken during the murder/robbery.

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Melton had a lengthy crime record, including a series of brutal rapes, and one assault in which he almost beat a man to death. I covered Melton’s murder trial and vividly recall penalty phase testimony from some of his victims; they had much of the courtroom in tears. One woman told jurors that Melton had forced her toddler son to watch while he raped her.

Especially chilling was that during her testimony, I looked at Melton and noticed he was drawing pictures of airplanes. He wasn’t even listening to her. Throughout his trial, he ignored witnesses and even his own attorney. His head always hung down as he doodled on paper.

There began my personal dilemma with Melton. When I met him at San Quentin, he was so polite and articulate, it was hard to believe that he was the same man who had so callously ignored his victims’ tragic descriptions of his crimes four years earlier.

I asked aloud why he hadn’t shown an ounce of humanity at his trial, and noted the difference in his current demeanor. Nothing could have changed that jury verdict, I’m sure. But Melton had not bothered to try.

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Before Melton could answer, his appeals attorney, Kane, almost jumped from his chair. It turns out Melton’s trial demeanor had become a major issue in his appeal. Melton claims that the Sheriff’s Department had provided him too much medication at the Orange County Jail. Melton was arguing that the drugs kept him from having the mental capability to adequately participate in his own trial.

Would I, the lawyer asked, be willing to sign something stating what I had observed at Melton’s trial?

Not a chance. I was a reporter, not an advocate. Frankly, I didn’t believe the medication theory. But Kane was relentless, calling me repeatedly for weeks afterward. Then a few years ago a new lawyer was added to Melton’s case. He flew to Orange County to ask me to change my mind. It may be the only issue that could save Melton’s life, he said.

Well, I don’t see it that way. Melton decided his own fate, through his own criminal actions.

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This week, the deputy attorney general assigned to fight Melton’s appeal, Carl H. Horst, said the U.S. District Court has eliminated most of Melton’s claims. But the medicated- at-trial claim remains alive, with a federal court hearing pending.

Visciotti’s case is also pending in U.S. District Court. Unlike Melton, Visciotti admits his crime--but blames it all on one of the victims.

Visciotti, aided by an accomplice, shot two fellow employees of a burglar alarm company after robbing them on payday.

One victim was killed instantly, but a second, shot three times and left for dead, managed to survive. He testified against Visciotti.

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Visciotti’s argument is that he had decided to call off the robbery but the second victim (the one who survived) refused his order to get back into the car. Visciotti said he panicked and opened fire with his handgun. If the second victim had just done what he was told, Visciotti insisted, nothing would have happened.

It’s such a ludicrous argument, of course. The two were taken to an isolated location solely to be executed.

Both Melton and Visciotti, now 41, were sentenced by Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald. Newspaper clippings from that time show that at Melton’s sentencing hearing, Fitzgerald told him it was too bad, because he liked Melton very much. But when Fitzgerald later sentenced Visciotti, he told him:

“It is my greatest hope, sir, that you will actually be executed. If it would happen soon, I would enjoy that.”

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The judge already got his wish on one defendant. Fitzgerald had also presided over Tommy Thompson’s trial and sentenced him to death. Though no other executions involving Orange County defendants are foreseen this year or next, Melton or Visciotti could find themselves at the head of the line.

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.


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