Innocent man on death row 17 years

Juan Melendez was sentenced to death in Florida for a crime he did not commit. He spoke at the University of Georgia yesterday to tell us about his life, conviction, imprisonment, and exoneration. He urged everyone to take a stand against the death penalty because of the high chance that defendants are innocent and because of the unnecessary collateral damage that an execution brings on a second family besides the victims'.

Melendez was born in Brooklyn in 1951. He was raised in Puerto Rico where he dropped out of school in ninth grade and began working with sugar cane. He moved to the mainland U.S. and became a migrant farm worker. "Everything God created, I picked it," he said.

He was arrested in Pennsylvania in 1984 and extradited to Florida for charges of murder and armed robbery. He did not understand what was happening because he did not know English and he was very rarely provided an interpreter.

He became the victim of one those questionable plea bargains in which a criminal offers testimony as a police informant in exchange for leniency from the system. The witness implicated himself as an accomplice in the crime and lied when he said that Melendez was involved. Another questionable witness in similar circumstances also testified against him.

Melendez was also the victim of racism. The jury was composed of 11 whites and one black. His alibi was provided by black witnesses. A white woman was the holdout juror on their second vote, saying that she just didn't believe Melendez committed the crime. The foreman showed a photograph of Melendez with his hair styled in an Afro and said that a man with a haircut like that could not be innocent. The juror voted for conviction.

Worse than the false testimony or the mindless jury was the misconduct of the prosecutor and the defense attorney. In the events that led to the retrial that exonerated Melendez, the files of his former defense attorney were searched and revealed an audiotape of a confession by the real killer. The prosecutor's files revealed a transcript of that confession plus 16 corroborating documents.

The prosecutor that robbed Melendez of over 17 years of his life is still prosecuting, and the defense attorney that let him do it is a judge, yet law is supposed to be a respectable, ethical profession. It reminds me of the saying that the criminal justice system gives you results that are just that -- they are either criminal or they are justice. The lawyer that accompanied Melendez told us that there has been one exoneration for every eight executions, which means there is no certainty that the people the system is executing are actually guilty.

While he was in prison, Melendez shared a cell with rats and...roaches. He had thoughts of suicide, and with four postage stamps he bought the trash bag from another inmate with which he could hang himself. First, however, he went to sleep, and he had a dream that he was swimming in the ocean where he saw four dolphins, and he felt happy. He saw his mother on the shore and could see that she was smiling -- because he was happy. Thus began a cycle of dreams that brought him hope, so he flushed his trash bag down the toilet.

Melendez also got a lot of support from his family members and his pen pals. Through photos he could watch his relatives grow up, and his mother prayed for a miracle to release him. He renewed his Christian faith just as a lot of inmates became spiritual in search of a higher power. It made him angry, though, when one of his inmate friends died one week before the friend's new trial was granted. The nurse that could have saved his life slowly walked back and forth between the clinic and the inmate, making two trips for equipment and spitting tobacco juice along the way. He allowed Melendez to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but by then it was too late.

Melendez said, "I was not saved by the system -- I was savied in spite of the system. I was saved by the grace of God." His defense attorney had to leave his case, and since the attorney had become a judge in the same county, Melendez's case was moved to another county. Whereas previously Melendez said he was not rich like O.J. Simpson and had to rely on the public defender's office, he now got new lawyers. "I finally got the dream team," he said.

Melendez had learned to read and write English from his fellow inmates, so he understood the process the second time around. He was turned out of prison with clothes and $100. Florida does not have a compensation program for wrongful convictions.

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