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Eighteen years on death row, Juan Melendez speaks about his unjust incarceration

Juan Melendez spoke at Dominican on Jan. 20. Credit: Anna Anguiano

By: Anna Anguiano

Seventeen years, eight months and one day is the time Juan Melendez spent in a Florida State Prison on death row. He was released on Jan. 3, 2002 with $100 and a pair of jeans after authorities found him innocent. Melendez stood in front of Dominican students on Jan. 20 to tell his story, spreading the message that the death penalty is unjust.

In 1984 Melendez was imprisoned for the murder of Delbert Baker, a cosmetology school owner. The evidence against him was based on testimonies that said he was at the location at the time of the murder. Although there was no physical evidence against him, he was sentenced to death two days after he was declared guilty.

With great energy and a hint of humor, Melendez took students through his experience with the legal system. According to Melendez, his alibis were ignored because his defense witnesses were African Americans, and his public defendant put little effort in his case.

Melendez’s visit was sponsored by the head of journalism John Jenks and assistant professor of criminology Michelle VanNatta. After reading reviews on Melendez’s speeches and learning more about his story, VanNatta said she wanted to offer the students the opportunity to learn about his experience.

“I hope that in the talk students were able to connect to a person who they may previously have felt was incomprehensibly different from them, a man who had been on death row,” VanNatta said.

While in prison Melendez both feared death and contemplated suicide. A plastic bag became a suicide tool that any death row prisoner could buy from an inmate worker for four stamps.  He obtained a bag, but dreams of Puerto Rico and his mother stopped him from killing himself.

Melendez also talked about the effect his imprisonment had on his family. His mother and five aunts wrote to him, giving him hope that one day he would be freed. Later he found out that his mother was raising money to bring his body back to Puerto Rico in case he was never released.

Some of the students were able to empathize with his family’s experience.

“My father was in prison for three years when I was younger, and it completely split and ruined my family,” student Sonia Alvarez said. “Of course there are huge differences between Juan and my father, but the prison system caused the same damage to both individuals and the families.”

A story that had an enormous impact on Melendez was of his friend he made in jail who taught him how to read and write in English. His friend died in prison because limited medical attention was given to him after he suffered a stroke. The prison’s nurse took his time to reach the inmate, and then refused to give him mouth to mouth because of the man’s race.

“Mr. Melendez’s experience of injustice is horrific and moving, and also it is not an aberration,” VanNatta said.  “His story demonstrates the fundamental malfunctions and inequalities in the U.S. criminal legal system as it currently operates; the system is riddled with racism and classism at all levels.”

Melendez was released after 18 years when it was found that various taped confessions of the real murderer existed, and the witnesses in the case had a grudge against Melendez.

Melendez said he was angry, but it was positive anger he would channel towards changing the system.

“If I could send a message it would be to never lose hope in life,” Melendez said. “Things don’t always come easy, but whatever dream you have in life you can make it happen.”


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