LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A Florida man who spent nearly two decades on death row for a murder he didn't commit shared a message with high school students in Louisville Thursday.
Juan Melendez spoke to students at Central High School while visiting Louisville this week for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference.
Melendez said he has an important reason for going to high schools to share his story of resilience, courage and hope.
Melendez used humor as he told students how he came close to being executed for a crime he did not commit.
"It was May 2, 1984. I'll never forget it," said Melendez.
That's when, Melendez said, police officers came to his job in Pennsylvania looking for him in connection to a slaying in Florida.
"Then when I got in front of them, they told me to open my mouth. They wanted to see if I have a missing tooth. I show it to them. There you have it," Melendez recounted. "Then they told me to lift the sleeve on my left arm and then they said, 'Yes, you are the man we are looking for.
'"Melendez said he was extradited to Florida, but could barely speak English as he went through the trial. He did not understand much of what got him locked away.
Had it not been for the discovery of a long-forgotten taped confession of the real killer, Melendez said he most certainly would have been executed.
"People need to know you always can release an innocent man from prison, but you can never release an innocent man from the grave," said Melendez.
Melendez believes as more stories like his are told to the younger generation, they'll be moved to want to change the system in the future, so he travels to schools across the country.
"They are the ones who can take the job to the end," said Melendez.
Melendez was released from Florida's death row on Jan. 3, 2002 -- 18 years after he was imprisoned.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference is at the Seelbach Hotel through Sunday.