Juan Melendez was on Florida’s death row, convicted of murder, for 17 years, eight months and one day before he was found innocent and exonerated on Jan. 3, 2002, released with only a T-shirt, jeans and $100 compensation.
There had been no criminal evidence against him; only the unfounded testimonies of two questionable witnesses. Worse yet, Melendez could hardly speak or understand English and he was not provided with an interpreter.
“My heart got full of hate,” Melendez said. “I was scared to die for a crime I did not commit.”
On Nov. 2, 1984, he was put on death row and his existence became one of shackled monotony and depression. All he could do to stay sane at times was to think back to his childhood in Puerto Rico and live in the memories of his past. Rituals such as this kept him from following through with suicide, like so many other inmates.
Letters from those who supported him, particularly from his mother and five aunts, also helped him survive his years of captivity.
“My mother was saving money to bring my body back to Puerto Rico,” Melendez said. “No mother should have to go through that pain.”
Melendez also developed close relationships with many men on death row. While this gave meaning to his experience, it weighed on him once he was released.
“I was leaving behind the people who taught me to read and write, and also the people who taught me to let go of my hate and anger,” Melendez said.
Sixteen years after his imprisonment, a tape recording surfaced with a confession from the actual murderer. The tape had been in the possession of the prosecuting attorney since his initial trial, yet it was never brought forward. Had Melendez been incarcerated in a state that works quicker to execute, the evidence might have been discovered too late.
Melendez shared his experience in his presentation “Presumed Guilty: A Story of Supreme Injustice, Survival, and Hope on America’s Death Row,” as he now travels the world speaking out against the arbitrary nature and practice of the death penalty.
To do so, he founded the Juan Melendez Voices United for Justice Project which works for abolition through educating the public about the true nature of the death penalty.
“I was not saved by the system,” Melendez said. “I was saved in spite of the system.”
For more information about Melendez, his intentions and his continuing efforts to work against injustice, visit www.VoicesUnited4Justice.com