Law professor Michael Mello, expert on death penalty, dies
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | November 25,2008
MONTPELIER — Michael Mello, a well-known professor at Vermont Law School, died at his home during the weekend. Mello was a national expert on legal issues surrounding the death penalty and had represented inmates on death row.
Mello was also involved in legal and court matters in Vermont. He testified before the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this past summer.
Mello also thought about and commented on decisions — particularly those decisions involving the Vermont Constitution or the U.S. Constitution — made by Vermont and U.S. courts.
"He was my colleague for 20 years," Professor Joan Vogel said. "It hasn't really sunk in to me that he isn't here anymore."
It was Mello's commitment to advocating for fair treatment of those accused of crimes, especially his death penalty work, that she remembers about him, she added.
"He was someone who cared deeply about the criminal justice system and how badly it works most of the time," Vogel said. "Sometimes these clients were not upstanding folks. That was really not the point. The point was whether they are guilty of what they were accused of doing.
"He certainly worked tirelessly to try and convince people how often mistakes were made in this system," she said. "He had enormous courage to do that."
Mello's humor and his dedication to what he was doing and its serious impact on people's lives made him a good teacher and lawyer, Vogel added.
"He had a wonderful sense of irony and humor and to do the kind of work he did you had to have that," Vogel added.
"Michael Mello is well known as a prolific writer on the death penalty and criminal law matters, but I will remember him especially for his mentoring friendship for students and his willingness to contribute in myriad ways to the life of Vermont Law School outside the classroom," Jeff Shields, the Dean of the law school, said in a statement.
Mello, who lived in White River Junction, died Sunday following a brief illness, according to the law school. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Mello, 51, was also an author of several books, including "The Wrong Man" about the two decades he spent preventing the execution of Joe Spaziano, a case which, according to the summary of the book, cost Mello any hope of practicing in Florida again.
"Most Americans would be horrified at how courts and governors handle death-penalty cases, and this book is more than worth its price for its account of that process," the Washington Post Book World said of that book.
Mello also carried on a correspondence with Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski after Kaczynski was in prison.
"To some extent at least, I know him," Mello said of Kaczynski in 1999. Mello also wrote a book about Kaczynski's case.
In Vermont, Mello was also known for commenting on complex and controversial criminal cases, including the death penalty case of Donald Fell and the Vermont Supreme Court decision to overturn the felony domestic assault case of Michael Brillon because his trial took too long.
The decision by the justices was controversial, but Mello said it was not without basis.
"We do poorhouse justice here in Vermont. That has been a lurking crisis here really before Howard Dean was governor, but especially during his tenure," Mello said of the Brillon case.
Mello is survived by his wife, Deanna, who is a Vermont Law School alumna.
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.