TAMPA, Florida – Juan Roberto Melendez has not been able to stop talking since he was freed from a cell on Florida’s death row four years ago.
“I remember the day and date exactly — Thursday, January 3, 2002. It’s like my second birthday. The first thing I did was kiss the ground because all I did for 17 years was to walk on concrete,” said Melendez, who in spite of his age, 55, still has jet black hair and sports a fashionable goatee.
Melendez was released from Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida after being condemned to die in 1984 for a crime he did not commit. The State of Florida still has not apologised.
His story is typical of other exonerated death row inmates, found caught in a prison system simply because he is poor and Hispanic. Some 96 percent of the states where death penalty sentences were studied by the American Bar Association in 1998 showed a direct link of discrimination.
Some 63 percent of the inmates on death row in the U.S. are black or Latino, even though they represent 25 percent of the total population, according to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report.
Melendez is one of 123 former death row inmates set free since 1973. Because so many mistakes are made and innocent people killed, the death penalty must be abolished, rights workers say.
“God only knows how many of all of the people who have been executed in this country did not have the same good fortune as I or other death row exonerees in this country,” Melendez told IPS. “I can not stress enough just how lucky I was to have been able to prove my innocence.”
Melendez spent 17 years, eight months, and one day — nearly one-third of his life — on death row. “When I was released, I was given 100 dollars, a pair of pants, and a shirt. That’s it,” Melendez said. “Nobody ever apologised.”
The U.S.-born Melendez dropped out of school after attending ninth grade in Puerto Rico. He moved back to the U.S. in 1970 and found a job in Delaware as a migrant worker picking vegetables. Later that year, he travelled on to Florida working at various citrus fruit plantations in the state.
Soon after, Melendez started getting in trouble. He served seven years in prison for armed robbery in 1974, a crime he admits he committed.
In 1981, he was set free, but the freedom would prove to be short lived.
Less than two years later, Sept. 13, 1983, a cosmetology school owner named Delbert Baker was brutally murdered and robbed shortly after closing up for the night.
Though Melendez maintained his innocence and could provide four people who verified he was elsewhere that day — police arrested the Latino on the basis of testimony of a man who held a grudge against Melendez.
While awaiting trial, though, Melendez’s attorney interviewed Vernon James, a man seen in the cosmetology school just before closing time, who confessed to the crime in a tape recording.
“I was already indicted; that’s why the confession didn’t let me go free and why James wasn’t charged,” Melendez said.
James refused to testify at Melendez’s trial, citing his Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination. The court ruled that his tape-recorded confession was hearsay evidence and did not allow it to be played. Melendez was sentenced to death on September 21, 1984.
Appeals by Melendez’s attorney proved unsuccessful and Melendez sat on death row an innocent man. James was murdered in 1986.
“Death row was hell,” he said simply. “All of us (inmates) always felt the pressure everyday.” The mental anguish of having a death sentence hanging over their head took its toll on everyone, he said.
He was locked in his cell nearly all day. He spent that time reading, mostly books sent to him from people in Europe who had read about his plight. His Bible, too, was a constant companion. He prayed a lot.
When he was allowed out two hours on Monday and Wednesday to exercise, he was shackled. The restraints remained on during the five-minute long showers he was allowed three times a week.
“Sometimes I was deliberately shackled too tight by some of the guards,” Melendez said, adding that he believes this is why he has arthritis in his arm joints. The irons have left permanent marks on his wrists.
In those 17 years, Florida executed 51 inmates. Melendez did not know most of them, but when a friend was killed, it was emotionally painful. “It was horrible. It was like losing a loved one,” he said. Melendez only had two visits — his mother and brother came in 1986; an aunt and his mother came in 1992 — but it was emotionally overwhelming for him. “I told all of them not to come back; it was just too much,” he said.
Ten into his stint, Melendez gave up hope. He had lost a round of appeals and depression set in. A lasting sadness among prisoners is common on death row and he had endured four friends’ attempts at suicide. He decided that was the only way out of his nightmare.
“I actually made a noose with a plastic bag. I was ready to kill myself,” he said.
In the end, though, he did not. “I had a vivid dream about happy times. When I woke up, I knew I didn’t want to kill myself.”
In 1999, Melendez was on his last round of appeals before execution. His attorney told an investigator to find something — anything — that would give the defence more time. He did. He found the transcript of James’ confession in a circuit court judge’s office in Polk County, Florida. The judge was Melendez’s original defence attorney.
The circuit court judge told the investigator that, while cleaning out his old office he found the transcript. Its discovery was enough to grant Melendez a new trial.
“For a day or two, I was mad at the (circuit court) judge for either forgetting or not knowing about the transcript. But then I figured that anything that could get me off death row was good,” Melendez said.
It took two more long before a new trial was granted by Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer on December 5, 2001. A month later, Melendez was set free.
Since then, Melendez can’t stop telling his story. He lectures about his ordeal to universities, high schools, detention centres and “anywhere people want to hear my story,” Melendez said. Requests have taken him across the U.S. and over to Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany and Spain.
When he is not lecturing, Melendez helps recruit troubled children to work on a plantain farm in Puerto Rico. He teaches them the methods of farming and harvesting. While they work, he tells the story about how he came to live on death row.
“I try to tell the kids to not commit crimes, to try to not mark themselves (get arrested), to live a clean life. Because I had a criminal record, I became a tool for the system,” Melendez said. IPS-Inter Press Service