Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Innocent man freed from death row tells his tale

Pocono Record Writer

April 11, 2010 12:00 AM
Imagine your worst nightmare.

You're accused of a ghoulish murder, sentenced to die in the electric chair — and you are innocent. It happens — it happened to Juan Melendez, and at least 138 others.

The League of Women voters invited Melendez, 59, to speak Saturday morning at the Hughes Eastern Monroe Public Library in a program about the death penalty.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is considering two bills, each calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and authorizing a study of its fairness in the state. "It's the first step to abolishing it," said league president Julie Dougherty.

At the age of 32, Melendez was accused of brutally murdering Delbert Baker on Sept. 13, 1983. Baker was the owner of a beauty school in Auburndale, Fla., in the central part of the state.

Baker had been shot three times — and his throat was slashed. The crime scene was drenched with blood. Baker had been robbed of cash and the jewelry he was wearing.

Melendez was fingered by a police snitch — David Luna Falcon, someone who himself faced murder charges and bartered his freedom to roll on Melendez.

Melendez is a skilled storyteller, mixing his narrative with passion, humor and self-deprecation. Despite a thick Spanish accent, his warmth was hypnotic, his voice rising and falling, at ease before the mostly female audience. But his anger surfaced as he described the circumstances of his conviction.

Falcon approached police and said Juan Melendez confessed the crime to him. The two men were acquaintances, but not friends.

Falcon was paid a $5,000 reward for turning Melendez in, and also received probation for the other murder charge. Melendez was convicted despite an alibi witness and without any physical evidence against him.

Falcon also said another man was involved in the crime — John Berrien, a friend of Melendez. Under the threat of the electric chair, Berrien gave police a bunch of false statements — including statements that incriminated himself in the crime. He said he took Melendez and his cousin to the beauty school, dropped them off, came back an hour and a half later and picked him up.

A jury convicted Melendez in 1984 after a one-week trial — very quick by capital standards, according to defense attorney Judi Caruso, an anti-death penalty advocate.

Melendez ended up on death row at Raiford Correctional Institution. His jailers took him to a 6-by-9-foot cell. It was cold, dark, and infested with rats and roaches.

"I thought I was a macho man, but I was scared. I was scared to die," he said.

Every day was a challenge. Correction officers would put Melendez's breakfast through the small slot in the cell door. He had to get out of his bunk within five seconds — "or else, forget about it. The roaches beat you to it. They were waiting for the breakfast, too," he said.

He had pen pals who showed him love and compassion. It helped him get through the days.

"I wanted out of there," he said. "But the only way out is to commit suicide. Lots of my friends committed suicide."

He almost tried it himself. "Every time I got depressed, every time I thought of suicide, I'd have dreams. Beautiful dreams. I was wise enough to grab all those dreams as a sign of hope."

Years later, Melendez's public trial lawyer became a judge, and his files were offered to his new public defender. She found a box with a tape of a confession by the real killer. She discovered both the defense and prosecutor had the transcript a month before Melendez's trial.

The taped confession led to other leads and people to whom the real killer confessed. The killer was male and apparently having a relationship with the victim. He was also a police informant, who had been himself killed by a police officer two years after the beauty school murder.

With the evidence revealed, a new judge chastised the prosecutors, police and defense lawyer for the way they handled the case. Melendez was given a new trial, but the prosecutor decided not to press the case, and dropped the charges.

Caruso said Melendez's experience isn't unusual. Many inmates on death row are there because of snitch testimony and junk science.

Melendez's case also highlights why the death penalty is so prone to error, according to the activist. "Poor people being defended by inadequate appointed defense council," she said.

The other weakness is the jury system — you have to be death-qualified to serve on a death penalty case, meaning not opposed to capital punishment. "A lot of people are excluded, which proportionally means a lot of people of color. Also death-qualified jurors are more prone to side with the prosecution. There's a built in bias toward conviction."

It took just under two years between the time they found the taped confession and Melendez's release. But still, the moment of his release was a surprise.

"They took me to a room across from death row. With handcuffs on my wrists. Chains on my legs. A woman behind a desk started asking me questions. Silly questions. My Social Security number. Who I worked with. I said, 'you don't understand, they don't have no jobs on death row.'"

"She looked at me and said, 'Melendez, you have no idea what's going on here. They are going to release you today.'"

Melendez was released from jail on Jan. 3, 2003. He spent more than 17 years in jail — 6,446 days on death row.

At his release, a reporter asked him how he felt. He said, "I want to see the moon. I want to see the stars. I want to hold a baby in my hands."

Melendez is an adamant opponent of the death penalty, not because of those who are guilty, but for those who are innocent. "You don't trust the government with your taxes. Why would you trust them with who gets to live or die?"

Now he dedicates himself to rallying against the death penalty.

"You can release an innocent man from jail, but you can never release an innocent man from the grave."

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