By Erik Ofgang, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Published: 07:11 p.m., Monday, November 23, 2009
Juan Roberto Melendez didn't understand what was going when police officers put him in handcuffs.
It was May 2, 1984, and Melendez was working at a Pennsylvania farm when police cars drove up suddenly and pulled him out of a crowd.
A Florida man named Delbert Baker had been brutally murdered, and Melendez -- who couldn't read or speak English -- was being charged with the crime. He'd spend the next 17 years and eight months of his life on death row before his innocence was proven.
Melendez shared his story Wednesday night at Western Connecticut State University in a lecture sponsored by the University's Division of Justice and Law Administration and the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.
There was no physical evidence linking Melendez to the murder, but he was implicated by a police informant. During his trial, four witnesses testified that the informant had a personal grudge against Melendez.
The trial began on a Monday by Thursday he was convicted. On Friday he was sentenced to death, "and the judge complained it was taking too long," Melendez said.
Placed on death row, Melendez was full of fear and hatred. "I was very scared to die for a crime I did not commit."
And he was angry. Angry at the system that had wrongly convicted him, angry at the prosecutor, angry at his defense attorney who had promised him everything would be OK, and angry at the guards who kept him locked up.
Melendez moved beyond his hate because of the friendship of other death row prisoners. "They taught this Puerto Rican how to read, how to write, how to speak English, how to let hate and anger go," he said.
People in the WestConn audience were visibly moved by Melendez's story. "I was almost in tears just hearing this," said Serwah Adarkwa, 21, a senior marketing major.
Before the lecture Adarkwa hadn't thought about the issue much, but she was "probably all for the death penalty," she said. But after hearing Melendez talk, she realized "there are a number of innocent people on (death row).
She now thinks capital punishment should be abolished.
Kelly Light, 20, a junior justice and law major, was impressed with how Melendez took a bad situation and made something positive come from it. "I think it's really important what he was saying about using his anger in a positive way," she said.
After three unsuccessful appeals before the Florida Supreme Court, Melendez's lawyers tried a another appeal. One of his lawyers found a man's taped confession to the killing that Melendez's original defense lawyer had overlooked.
With further research, Melendez's lawyers found the prosecuting attorney had illegally withheld a transcript that corroborated the taped confession.
Additionally, there was physical evidence and further testimony that showed Baker (the man Melendez was accused of killing) had actually been murdered by the police informant who had implicated Melendez.
Melendez won a new trial, but in light of the newly discovered evidence the state dropped the charges against him.
The original prosecuting attorney was prevented from handling future homicide cases because of his mismanagement of the Melendez trial.
After 17 years, eight months and one day, Melendez was freed.
"I wasn't saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system," he said.
Since then he has toured the country and the world, sharing his story in an effort to reform the legal system and abolish the death penalty.
Early this year the Connecticut General Assembly voted to end it, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislation.
Melendez said he hoped efforts to the end death sentence in Connecticut will continue. "You can always release an innocent man from prison," he said, "but you can never release a man from death."