February 1, 2007
Melendez comes to UA, tells story of exoneration, freedom
Ex-death row inmate calls for death penalty abolition
By James Jaillet, The Crimson White
Just more than five years ago, Juan Roberto Melendez was an inmate awaiting
execution in a Florida prison. Today, however, Melendez is a free man,
traveling the world and giving speeches on his story, his faith and the
abolishment of the death penalty.
On Tuesday, Melendez was a guest speaker at the UA School of Law, where he
spoke to a classroom full of law students and other guests.
According to close friend and colleague Judi Caruso, Melendez's story is one
of "triumph and justice," and is also a key case in exploring the problems
of the death penalty in our country.
Melendez's story began in May 1984 when he was arrested for first-degree
murder and armed robbery of a cosmetics school owner in Auburndale, Fla.
After a one-week trial in September 1984, Melendez was convicted and
sentenced to death row, where his term started in November 1984.
Melendez was convicted on the word of David Falcon, a police informant, and
John Berrien, a former friend of Melendez, with both saying they new
Melendez had committed the crime and Berrien saying he was an accomplice to
the crime. No physical evidence existed that tied Melendez to the crime.
"His initial reaction was a very strong anger," Caruso said. "He knew he
wasn't supposed to be there. He just knew that the prosecution could never
prove the case and that justice would prevail, but when it didn't it was
very tough for him."
Melendez said, though, that anger is something he learned to deal with while
"I learned to let the anger go away," he said. "It wasn't the hating type of
anger, it was the type of anger that kept me going."
Sixteen years and three appeals later, a tape of the confession of the real
killer, Vernon James, surfaced. James' defense attorney made the tape one
month before his trial began and copies had been sent to the prosecution as
well. The tape not only contained the confession but also quoted the real
killer as to other crimes he had confessed.
"Juan said that there were really two miracles in his exoneration. The first
was that the tape itself was found. The second was that the case had gotten
moved from Polk County to Hillsborough County, [Fla.]," Caruso said. "In
Polk County, you could say they were practicing the good ol' network. What
it took was an individual judge to look at all of the evidence without any
ties to anything and decide that he needed to be free."
The real murderer had been killed by a police officer two years after Juan
had been sentenced. Sixteen witnesses came forward to say James had also
confessed his guilt to them, and on Jan. 3, 2002, Melendez was freed.
"The average time of length an inmate spends on death row in Florida is nine
to 10 years. Juan was very, very fortunate to be on 16 years, which was
enough time to allow the tape to resurface," Caruso said.
Edward Miller, a third-year law student, said he has seen a lesson in
overlooking minute details in cases such as Melendez's.
"Two of the biggest things for me are for one, what seems like a job to me
in law school could be details that are irksome sometimes, but to others
they could be the difference in them living and dying," Miller said. "The
second is that you should never be bored.
"To imagine being bored with any part of this job and not giving the effort
that could change someone's life completely is, to me, selling freedom
Millie Worley, a second-year law student, said Melendez's presentation was
"very moving and insightful."
"It certainly raises some of the serious questions about how we address
appeals and evidence in post-conviction death row inmates," Worley said.
"I'm sure it's something that's going to stick with me."
Ryan Ammons, a second-year law student, said that along with the insight
Melendez offered, it reinforced Ammons' belief in examining the infringement
upon human rights he sees in the execution of inmates.
"I have a lot of sympathy for human rights abuses that go on in our own
country," Ammons said. "I was already very sympathetic towards that cause,
but it's good to hear someone who fought when their rights were taken away.
"I think this can teach us that some cases, if pushed hard enough from the
outside, can still work out."
Melendez works with Caruso in a program known as the Juan Melendez Voices
United for Justice. Both are also board members of the National Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty. Melendez said though he is free, he still has
many wishes for the future.
"I'm still a dreamer," Melendez said. "I still pray to God every night to
get the death penalty abolished."
Source : The Crimson White (University of Alabama)