Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fresh Off Death Row, a Man Fights For a Cause

By Adam Casella
Hoya Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

A former death-row inmate who was exonerated after almost 18 years in prison described his experience and called for the abolition of the death penalty in a speech yesterday in White Gravenor.

Juan Melendez spent 17 years, eight months and one day on death row in Florida after being convicted of the 1983 murder of Delbert Baker. There was no physical evidence linking Melendez to the crime and another prisoner, Vernon James, had admitted to murdering Baker a month before the trial began. James invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying at the trial, and his taped confession was ruled to be hearsay evidence and not shown to the jury.

Melendez was released on Jan. 3, 2002, after a transcript of James’ confession was discovered and a new trial ordered.

In the speech, sponsored by Georgetown’s Prison Outreach, Melendez said that his time spent languishing in prison was the darkest period of his life.

"Imagine yourself arrested and charged with murder, for a crime you didn’t commit," he said. "I am no killer. My momma didn’t raise no killer."

Melendez said he often dreamed of his native Puerto Rico during his nearly 20 years on death row, and relied on support from his family and from God. He said that some days, when confined to a 54-square-foot cell infested with rats and roaches, suicide seemed like the best option.

"If you kill yourself, you are dead but free," he said. "A condemned man needs something more powerful than the system to sustain him."

Upon his release, all Melendez owned was $100 and the clothes on his back.

"I kissed the ground," he said. "I wanted to see the moon and the stars, walk on grass and dirt, hold a baby in my arms, talk to a beautiful woman."

Melendez now works for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, an organization formed in 1976 that advocates for the elimination of capital punishment. He hopes that the death penalty, which he described as a "cruel, expensive and racist practice, which pains families," will be banned during his lifetime.

"I am a dreamer," he said. "Always have been."

Melendez said he believes education is the key to abolishing the death penalty.

"We can always make progress," Melendez said. "I had to get on death row before I became active with this cause, but it doesn’t have to be that way."

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