Thursday, September 29, 2005

Juan Melendez on the road

Juan Melendez, who was the 99th person freed from death row due to actual innocence since the mid 1970s, is currently on the road speaking to students and others about his experience. The other day, he was at the University of Georgia, where a journalist with the university daily filed this report:

In a Pennsylvania field on May 2, 1984, Juan Melendez was eating his lunch under an apple tree with other migrant workers when FBI agents, pointing guns, approached them and ordered them to lie on the ground.

When the agents asked for Melendez, he raised his hand.

He then was arrested and extradited to Florida on a 1st degree murder charge.

A jury of 11 whites and one black convicted Melendez less than 3 days after the trial began. He was sentenced to death.

On Jan. 3, 2002 - 17 years, 8 months and 1 day after he arrived at prison Melendez was exonerated and set free.

Thats the story Melendez told a crowd of about 150 Tuesday in the University School of Law.

Melendez, who only spoke Spanish at the time of the trial, talked about the problems he had with his original trial lawyer and the lack of an interpreter.

"The only evidence they had against me was the plea deals' testimonies and both witnesses had criminal records," Melendez said.

He recalled cockroaches in the cells, rats climbing his blanket at night and thoughts of suicide.

"I had to find, think and trust something more powerful than the system," he said, referring to his Christian faith.

Of course, if the Streamlined Procedures Act had been in place at the time of Juan's appeals, he would likely be dead now, executed by the state of Florida. Today the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the SPA, and we can only hope that one or two Republicans come to their senses and vote against it.

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