For 17 years, eight months and one day Juan Melendez’s reality was a horror story.
Melendez was imprisoned in Florida for a violent murder he didn’t commit. He watched guards prepare for and execute other condemned men on death row, and wondered when his time would come. He considered cheating them by committing suicide and went as far as to attain a plastic bag that he could shred to make into a rope to hang himself.
But something inside the fiesty Puerto Rican wouldn’t give up, even after his death sentence for allegedly killing a white man was upheld three times by the Florida Supreme Court. Finally, in 2002 he was released from prison after a new set of attorneys — he calls them his dream team — found a taped confession from the man who slit the throat of Delbert Baker in 1983.
Today, Melendez lives in New Mexico and travels the world speaking out against the death penalty. On Monday, he’s in Helena to give Carroll College’s Martin Luther King Day Lecture.
“The problem with the death penalty is it doesn’t deter crime; people doing crimes are not thinking about the death penalty but are thinking about not getting caught,” Melendez said on Saturday. “It costs $2.8 million to put someone to death, money that could be used to give better training to police so they can catch the real perpetrators. Money that could go for drug programs, for therapy counseling for victims families — lots of things instead of killing somebody.
“Lock them up and throw away the key so you don’t have to worry about them, but killing them is cruel and unusual punishment and the death penalty is racist.”
Melendez is an energetic, witty man with dark curly hair and a rosary around his neck, which he picks up and kisses reverentially at times. Clad in jeans and a blue T-shirt that reads “Witness to Innocence, From Death Row to Freedom,” Melendez readily acknowledges that he is still angry about his lost years, but is channeling that anger in positive ways by telling his story and advocating for the repeal of the death penalty in all states.
He was born in New York, but moved to Puerto Rico as a small boy. In 1983, Melendez was a 33-year-old migrant farmer, who only knew five words in English and “three were cuss words” when arrested by the FBI for Baker’s murder in his beauty salon.
Melendez said he wasn’t too worried at that time because he had never met Baker, and he thought the criminal justice system worked.
“I thought I would go through the process and be free, because I was innocent,” Melendez said. “That’s how naïve I was. Then they showed the crime scene to the jurors — 11 were white and one was African American — with the man whose throat was slashed. He was shot three times and lying in a pool of blood. I could see they looked at me with hate. I realized I was in some kind of trouble.
“They showed those pictures to the jurors to make them angry. Their emotions got involved and when that happens, innocent people get hurt because now they want revenge. Now they want blood.”
Home became a 6-by-9 cell. It was cold, dark and every time he left it he wore shackles on his legs, wrists and waist. He stretches out his arms, revealing large, permanent welts on his wrists where guards who didn’t like him would put the handcuffs on tightly.
His fellow condemned men taught Melendez how to read and write, and they became like family. He notes how death row was the calmest place in prison since this was where they knew they would spend the rest of their lives.
Somehow, he never gave up hope and somehow, near the end of his appeals, an investigator looking through the initial attorney’s records found a cassette tape. On it was a confession by Vernon James and 16 other pieces of evidence also were discovered, corroborating the confession.
“My trial lawyer had that tape a month before the trial. But he went golfing with the prosecutor, went out to dinner with him. They were friends,” Melendez said. “It wasn’t about justice, it was about winning. They already had told everyone they had their man and they couldn’t admit they were wrong.”
Melendez was taken to the prison office, told to sit down and a woman behind the desk started to ask him questions that Melendez calls stupid and naïve.
“What’s your Social Security number? Where do you work? What type of job do you have? Who do you work for? I looked at her and said ‘Lady, I’m on death row and been in here for 18 years. You don’t have no jobs on death row,’” he recalled. “She said ‘Melendez, you don’t know what’s going on.’”
That’s when she told him he was being processed for release from prison that day.
His face lights up when he relates going back to his cell to pick up his meager belongings. Words failed Melendez as he faced his death row cellmates for the last time, tears running down his cheeks, but his best friend, convicted murderer Clarence Hill told him to stay out of trouble, to take care of his mother and to never forget them.
As he walked down that corridor one last time, he heard someone clap. Then a second clap, then a third, then more.
“They were making so much noise clapping hands, whistling and hollering,” Melendez said. “The guards told them to shut up but they wouldn’t quit and kept making noise until I was gone.”
It was Jan. 20, 2002. Hill died by lethal injection four years later.
Melendez initially wanted only to feel the sun on his face and grass under his feet. He planned enjoy the simple things in life, to lie back in a hammock, drink some rum and relax.
But he couldn’t forget his friends. And he knew, as the 99th man in the nation on death row to be exonerated since 1973, that he had a duty to tell his stories so that innocent people would not be put to death.
He notes that four states — New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty and 138 innocent people have been freed.
The Rev. Jerry Lowney, who has long fought to end the death penalty in Montana, hopes that those attending the lecture will realize that the system doesn’t always work.
“Poor people and people of color are more likely to get caught, spend more time in prison and are more likely to be on death row,” Lowney said.
Melendez added that there’s also no do-over with the death penalty.
“We are humans and we make mistakes, but with the death penalty there’s no turning back,” he says quietly. “You can always release an innocent man from prison but you can’t release an innocent man from the grave.”
Melendez will speak at 7 p.m. Monday at the Carroll Campus Center on the lower level. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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