Monday, July 16, 2007

Death row suvivor fights to save lives

Dreaming kept Juan Roberto Melendez alive.

Melendez said he spent 17 years, eight months and one day in a 6-by-9-foot cell on Florida's death row for a crime he didn't commit.

"You always think that the truth will come out," said Melendez, who was 33 when he entered death row. He just had no idea it would take more than 17 years to prove his innocence.

"If I wouldn't have grabbed the Bible, I don't think I would've survived," said Melendez, now 56.

About 35 people gathered Sunday afternoon at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Jackson to hear Melendez's story of how he was falsely convicted of murder and armed robbery and later freed after the court learned that the prosecutor withheld vital evidence in the case, namely a taped confession from the real killer.

Melendez is very clear about who freed him.

"I was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system," he said. "I was saved by the grace of God."

And by a praying mother. "My mom, she's Catholic to the bones," he said to some laughter from the audience.

Melendez said he shares his testimony in part to encourage the country's leaders to rethink the death penalty.

The Tennessee General Assembly recently took a step to re-examine the death penalty. Legislators passed a bill to study the issue over the next year.

But Melendez doesn't want it to stop there, and neither does a group of concerned citizens and clergy that is calling for a state moratorium on the death penalty while the issue is studied. Several are members of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing.

Soon, the group will ask the Jackson City Council to pass a resolution urging Gov. Phil Bredesen to issue a moratorium. TCASK members held a press conference Sunday afternoon outside Mother Liberty CME Church to announce their plans.

Daryll Coleman, pastor of Mother Liberty, found it fitting that the press conference take place on church grounds.

"I believe in stressing social justice," Coleman said. "We (the church) can serve as a symbol of equal and proper treatment for all."

Shelby and Davidson counties already have passed resolutions asking Bredesen to put a moratorium on the death penalty over the next year, said Elbon Kilpatrick, an ordained minister and member of St. Mary's Catholic Church.

Kilpatrick said the death penalty fails to uphold moral standards. "Why do people kill people to show that killing someone is wrong?"

City Councilman Johnny Dodd said that question bothers him, too. Dodd said he will support a resolution calling on Bredesen to enact a moratorium.

"You need to be 100 percent that the person committed the crime," he said. "We need to be cautious when you give people the death penalty."

Local NAACP President Harrell Carter said there is no question that the death penalty system is broken.

"The system has to be put on notice that it has a price to pay if it's wrong," Carter said.

Melendez described to the captivated audience at St. Mary's the horrid conditions of the cell he shared with rats and roaches. He and other death row inmates were allowed only four hours of recreation time a week if it wasn't raining. And there had to be only a dark cloud in the sky for the prison to call off recreation for "inclement weather," he said.

"After 10 years, I wanted out of there," Melendez said.

He fell into a deep depression and turned to suicidal thoughts. He then described what happened the day he was going to take his life.

He passed word on to "a runner," a nickname for another inmate not on death row, to get him a plastic garbage bag. He took that garbage bag and twisted it up to make a rope and fashioned a noose. Before he put it around his neck, he started thinking, "I better (lie) down and think about this a little more."

He fell into a deep sleep. He had a beautiful, vivid dream about his life back in Puerto Rico when he was young. In the dream, he could feel the sun, see the palm trees and even see four dolphins in the water.

In the dream, he said, "I'm so happy. I look to the shore. It's a lady waving at me."

That lady was his mother. That dream was a godsend, he said. It gave him hope.

Every time he would get depressed, he said he would just ask God to send him another beautiful dream.

He also learned how to read, write and speak English in prison.

He worked as a migrant worker before he went to prison. Two of his biggest mistakes in life, he said, were when he stopped listening to his mama and when he dropped out of school. He said he is grateful for the men on death row who taught him English.

He had originally moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in search of the American dream.

Anne Abernathy Wade, one of those in the audience, said she was moved by Melendez's story. Fifty years ago as a Youth in Government student at the former Jackson High School, she wrote an imaginary bill to abolish the death penalty for an assignment.

"I just felt that it was wrong," she said. "I was 16 years old."

That feeling hasn't changed 50 years later, Wade said.

She held up a bumper sticker that read, "The Death Penalty, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)."

Today, Melendez works as a construction worker in New Mexico when he is not traveling sharing his story. He lives with his girlfriend, Judi Caruso. She is a criminal attorney.

Melendez's story will be featured in an upcoming documentary by Puerto Ricans Against the Death Penalty.

Melendez still holds fast to his dreams.

"I'm still a dreamer," he said. "I pray that in my lifetime I can see the death penalty abolished."

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- Wendy Isom, 425-9782

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