18 Years Out: Death row exoneree Seth Penalver speaks at Florida Atlantic

Death row exoneree Seth Penalver came to campus last Tuesday to speak about his experiences on death row.


Death row exoneree Seth Penalver spoke to over 400 FAU students and staff Tuesday night. Brittany Ferrendi | Features Editor

Brittany Ferrendi, Features Editor

Former death row inmate Seth Penalver, who spent 18 years in prison before his exoneration, spoke to students and staff on the Boca campus Tuesday night.

“He actually changed my mind on the view of death penalty,” said Marissa Buchanan, a junior majoring in criminal justice. “I wasn’t pro death, but I wasn’t against it; my views were mixed.”

Close to 450 seats in the Grand Palm Room were entirely filled by students and staff, with a dozen others standing up in the back of the room.

Professor Cassandra Atkin-Plunk, who specializes in studying corrections and helped organize the event, opened the floor to Penalver’s public speech.

Penalver was accused of committing a 1994 triple murder in Broward County. He missed a meeting with detectives due to a personal emergency. From there forward, they were no longer interested in talking to him.

On Aug. 3, 1994, Penalver felt his options were drained. “I turned myself in, and that’s where my nightmare began,” he told the audience.

According to NBC Miami, Penalver was tried twice alongside his co-defendant, Pablo Ibar. The first ended with a gridlocked jury and a mistrial, and the second trial sentenced him to the death penalty in 1999.

While in prison, Penalver turned to faith — he became a life coach and a minister. “I found God in there,” he said.

He also turned to the legal system when he realized that people could receive new trials when police officers and prosecutors withhold evidence. “While people were buying candy, I was buying law books, because this can’t be the end,” the exoneree told the audience.

Penalver eventually discovered that the prosecutor and police held back information that may have proved his innocence.

“When I saw some of the stuff they withheld, I broke down,” he said. “Like, why? Why would you do this?”

In 2012 — after spending almost half of his life in prison — Penalver’s charge was overthrown by the Florida Supreme Court due to improper evidence at his trial.

According to the death row exoneree, one of the witnesses was bribed into giving a false testimony.

“They were paid — they were paid to say something and we didn’t know that until 17 and a half years later,” he told the silent audience.

His co-defendant, Ibar, still remains on death row.

Penalver is the 142th person to be exonerated from death row, and the 24th person in Florida alone. “Imagine the ones we don’t know about that were killed,” he added.

On whether the death penalty should be permissible, Penalver said: “It’s either you have it or you don’t, and even one person is too many if you got it wrong.”

In addition to public speaking and ministering, Penalver reaches out to juveniles at Miami’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center — an adult jail that houses minors based on their crimes.

Penalver gave advice to students interested in the criminal justice field: “Don’t manufacture what you don’t have,” he said. “That’s what happened to me.”  

ACJA members Penalver and Atkin-Plunk pose for a photo following the event. Brittany Ferrendi | Features Editor
ACJA members Penalver and Atkin-Plunk pose for a photo following the event. Brittany Ferrendi | Features Editor

Penalver was invited to campus by the Beta Phi chapter of the American Criminal Justice Association at FAU. The ACJA Beta Phi chapter and Atkin-Plunk chose Penalver to shed light onto a different side of the criminal justice system.

“I believe this is important because many of our students aspire to be law enforcement officers or prosecutors, and as such they should realize the gravity of these positions and how they could potentially affect people’s lives,” President of ACJA  Brandon Karns told the UP.

After his speech, Penalver took a Q&A session with the audience. Once that concluded, about 30 students and staff lined up to speak with him personally.

“It was a different perspective — I’ve always been neutral on the death row because I’ve had corrections and ethics [classes] so my perspective can be very different,” said Amanda Carrasquillo, a senior criminal justice major who is a part of ACJA. “Whether death row is still enrolled, whether it’s harsher, whether it’s not there anymore, I feel that as our generation we can all grow and develop from this speaker.”

Brittany Ferrendi is the features editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @BFerrendi.