Recently Juan found himself in, of all places, Bismarck, North Dakota. Here is his story:
'Dead man' talking
By KAREN HERZOG
Seventeen years, eight months and one day.Juan Melendez spent that portion
of his life on Florida's death row. Imprisoned from 1984 until his exoneration
in 2002, he swung between anger and despair, learning to read, write and speak
English from other death row inmates, at times contemplating suicide. He credits
his survival and release to faith and to a couple of miracles.
On his release Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death row inmate in the
U.S. to be exonerated and released since 1973. Melendez spoke to students
at the University of Mary on Thursday as part of campus activities surrounding
the production of "Dead Man Walking." The convocation was moved to the McDowall
Activities Center because of the numbers of people planning to attend.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Puerto Rico, Melendez started cutting sugar
cane as a teen and worked as a migrant worker in the U.S. He is still proud of
that work, he said, and counts Cesar Chavez as his hero.
While working in Pennsylvania, Melendez was arrested by FBI agents and
extradited to Florida on a murder charge.
Knowing little English and "naive of the law," he said, he waived
extradition proceedings on the assumption that since he was not a killer, it was
the thing to do.
"How wrong I was," he said.
Within a week, a jury was selected - 11 white, one African-American, no
Hispanics - he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, based on the
evidence of a police informant and one other person who struck a deal with
prosecutors, he said. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.
Melendez was left with "a heart full of hate," he said, for the judge, the
jury, the prosecutor and his defense attorney.From then on, he lived as one of
the condemned men on Florida's death row. From "the worst of the worst" he lived
among, he was taught to read and write, to speak English, he said. Here, if you
didn't grab your breakfast quick, the roaches beat you to it, he said; rats
crept up to share the warmth of the prison blanket.
"I was real scared in there," he said.
Ten years into his sentence, he came as close to suicide as to make a trade
- the usual swap was cigarette rolling papers or stamps - for a garbage bag that
inmates learned could be rolled into a noose.
He chucked it under his bed to think about it, he said; that night, he
dreamed of dolphins leaping, of his childhood, of an old lady waving - that
would be his mother, he knew.
When he woke, he flushed the bag.
"I grabbed at all dreams as a sign of hope," he said. "God said, 'You've
got to trust me.'"
Although Melendez's conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal
three times by the Florida Supreme Court, in September 2000, 16 years after he
was convicted and sentenced to death, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped
confession by the real killer was discovered in his file. Ultimately it was
discovered that the real killer made statements to no less than 16 individuals
either directly confessing to the murder or stating that Melendez was not
In a 72-page opinion, in which she overturned Melendez's conviction and
death sentence and ordered a new trial, Judge Barbara Fleischer chastised the
prosecutor for withholding crucial evidence. Without admitting any wrongdoing,
the state of Florida declined to pursue a new trial against Melendez because one
of its key witnesses had recanted and the other had died.
Melendez tried to describe to students the moment when he learned he was to
be set free:"You ever watch cartoons?" he asked. Picture a cartoon character hit
on the head, seeing stars, but smiling.
"That was me," he said. As he returned to death row to gather his
belongings to leave, the rest of the inmates called out advice: "Don't get into
trouble out there." "Don't forget about us." "Take care of your mama." Then he
heard one handclap, then another, and another. Applause.
"They were happy for me," he said.
122 people have been released from death row after evidence emerged of their innocence.