Man freed from death row gives account of his 17 years in ‘hell’

For 17 years, three months and one day, Juan Melendez fought the demons telling him to take his own life. Condemned to be put to death in Florida for a crime he says he did not commit, he was tormented with the idea that he could only be freed by dangling from a rope.

“I would pray to God to send me a beautiful dream,” Melendez said about how he coped with the temptation.

Each time, he said God sent him that dream. He would dream of being back in his native Puerto Rico, swimming in the Caribbean Sea and enjoying time with his family. What Melendez did not know is that one day that dream of freedom would come true.

On April 5, Melendez shared his story with Northern Kentucky University students.

Melendez said he was wrongfully arrested and convicted after a police informant lied to investigators and told them Melendez had confessed to the murder of Delbert Baker.

According to Melendez, there was no physical evidence introduced by the prosecutor. Nonetheless, the judge condemned Melendez to death.

“I was filled with hate … I was scared, very scared to die, for a crime I did not commit,” Melendez said about his immediate reaction to his sentence.

In prison, he said that those serving with him taught him how to read, write and speak English.

“If they would have never taught me, I would not have survived that place,” Melendez admitted, adding that he would not have been able to communicate as effectively with his post-conviction attorneys.

Later on, an investigator working for a new team of attorneys discovered exonerating evidence that his trial attorney had ignored. This evidence would lead a court to vacate his judgment and grant him a new trial. The new prosecutor dismissed the case against Melendez when faced with the evidence. He was finally freed.

“I was not saved by the system; I was saved in spite of the system,” Melendez said about his release from death row, attributing his freedom to his faith in God and to those around him who had the courage to believe him.

Melendez’s time in prison left him with scars. He shared with the audience how many other prisoners listened to the voices and took their own lives, how one inmate lie dying on the ground and medical staff did not make an effort to save him and how his departure from the cell was bittersweet because he knew that other innocent people were still locked up and facing death. Later, some of these friends were executed in Florida.

He said he remembers the faces of those he saw die in front of him.

“[Death penalty verdicts are] made by human beings, and given out by human beings, and we know humans make mistakes,” Melendez said. “There is always going to be a risk to kill an innocent man, but we can never release an innocent man from the grave.”

The event was open to all NKU students, but was also targeted at students from the Salmon P. Chase College of Law. Several law students and professors were in attendance. Melendez commented on how ineffective his counsel had been in his initial trial.

According to Melendez, one month prior to trial, his defense attorney was provided with an audio recording of another person confessing to the crime for which he was convicted, along with sixteen pages of documents corroborating the confessor’s account. Melendez said he only discovered this when an investigator looking into his case several years later discovered the evidence in a file that was turned over by his prosecutor.

He also urged law students to become criminal defense attorneys and help people like him. He warned them, however, that taking on death penalty cases will wear you down, citing the mental strain he witnessed from members of his post-conviction team that had seen many of their clients executed.

Deifilia Diaz, the Chase student who organized the event, said that the goal of the event was to bring more Hispanic speakers to campus. She said she was not familiar at first with the story behind Melendez’s conviction, but that the message he shared with students at the event was “life-changing.”

As a law student, Diaz said she took heed to the warnings that Melendez emphasized for attorneys.

“We are going to be out there representing clients and we have to make sure we are representing clients correctly,” Diaz said.

The event also took a local turn. At the end of the event, students were encouraging attendees to sign a petition to support the release of Shawn Hawkins, who is on death row in Ohio and scheduled to be executed on June 14, 2011. Speakers at the event claim that he, like Melendez, is also innocent of the charges.

Melendez received a standing ovation from a full room of attendees in the Student Union Multipurpose Room. Event organizers said they were impressed by the attendance.

Story by Jesse Call