Friday, February 23, 2007
Released from death row:
Cleared inmate to speak at Congress
By Ellie Hidalgo
Juan Roberto Melendez Colon endured 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. On Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death-row inmate in the United States since 1973 to be cleared of wrongdoing and released from prison.
Melendez now spends part of each year speaking at conferences and law schools and offering living testimony to the pervasive problems of the death penalty system. A captivating and dynamic speaker, Melendez will be telling his story at Congress March 2 at 1 p.m. in English and on March 4 at 10 a.m. in Spanish.
"The death penalty is cruel, unnecessary, costs too much and doesn't deter crime," Melendez, 55, told The Tidings during a recent phone interview. "And there's always a risk that an innocent person is going to be executed."
The father of three daughters was convicted of first degree murder in Central Florida in 1984 based on the false testimony of two questionable witnesses, including one who recanted his story 16 years later.
"There was no physical evidence against me whatsoever," said Melendez. The trial started on a Monday, he was convicted that Thursday and sentenced to death on a Friday.
The former migrant farm worker still marvels at how swiftly the courts can condemn someone --- usually a poor person --- to death.
Even though he was innocent, Melendez's conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal three times by the Florida Supreme Court. Then in 2000, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped confession by the real killer was discovered in a box of legal papers.
Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned Melendez's conviction and death sentence. She wrote a long opinion highlighting the injustices endured by Melendez and chastising the prosecutor for withholding crucial evidence about the credibility of the witnesses.
What sustained Melendez during the many years he languished in prison?
"My faith in God. Every time I felt suicidal, God sent me a beautiful dream," he said. He also counted on the support of his family --- his mother and five aunts. From Puerto Rico, the women wrote many letters.
Anti-death penalty pen pals around the world wrote to inmates. "They let us know we're not alone. They bring a lot of compassion and make you feel like a human being," he said.
However, Melendez cut off communication with his three daughters. "I didn't want them to go through all the pain," he said.
While in prison Melendez learned to read, write and speak English. His teachers? "The condemned. The worst of the worst taught me how to do that," he said.
What turned out to be most painful, reflected Melendez, were the 51 fellow inmates executed during his time on death row --- men he had gotten to know personally.
"You are next door to him for so many years, 10, 15 years. And then one day they snatch him out of there, and put him in an electric chair," he said.
"Some of them were innocent," he added, rattling off names. "They most likely didn't commit the crime. I couldn't do anything about it. All I could say is, 'I'll see you soon.'"
After Melendez was exonerated and released from prison, he reestablished contact with his daughters. Today he splits his time between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where he works on a plantain field and counsels troubled youth.
Is he bitter?
"Oh, no. I have no time for that. I don't let the anger dominate me. I'm very happy to be free," said Melendez. "I use my anger to educate people, to let them know that the death penalty is a bad government policy that only brings suffering and pain. We don't need it."