BY MATT HUTCHINS
For seventeen years, eight months, and one day, Juan Melendez, a native of New York who was raised in Puerto Rico, lived as a condemned man in a Florida prison, sentenced to die by the electric chair. One day, with no warning from the guards or prison administration, he was sent to a booking office, where they asked him for his name, social security number, and other information. “I had no idea why I was there. When the lady told me I was being released, I was like one of those cartoon characters that gets hit by a hammer and has stars circling around his head. But I was smiling.” Now Melendez tours the country speaking to students and citizens about the horrors of death row and the fundamental injustice of the death penalty in a criminal justice system which is fallible and racially biased. On Monday, March 30, Melendez spoke to HLS students about his life at an event sponsored by the Harvard BLSA and ACLU.
Melendez recalled how he once lived as a migrant farm worker, traveling from state to state freely until one day, while sitting under an apple tree in Delaware, federal agents surrounded him and took him into custody. He was told that he was wanted for murder in Florida, a state he had recently been working in picking citrus fruits. Melendez was confused by the sudden arrest, but had faith in the criminal justice system. At that time he spoke very little English, and when they asked him if he would agree to be extradited, his counsel told him, “Either you say yes, or they will get you anyway and you have to wait.” He agreed, believing that once he returned to Florida he would face the charges and be vindicated at trial.
But when the trial began, he soon learned that the deck was stacked against him. He was represented by a public defender, but never had a translator who could communicate to him his legal rights or the case against him. “All I understood was that after the trial I was going to get to go home.” The case against Melendez rested entirely upon the testimony of a confidential informant and a codefendant who had made a plea bargain with the government. Even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, it soon became clear to Melendez that he would face serious difficulties in court. “All the jury was white, with a couple blacks. There were no Latinos like me.” He had several witnesses who corroborated that he was not involved, but was matched by numerous witnesses who confirmed his codefendant’s story. “On Monday we picked the jury. By Wednesday the arguments were done. On Thursday I was found guilty, and on Friday I was sentenced to death. And the whole time, the judge said it was going too slow.”
Almost seventeen years later, Melendez would discover that his public defender had been in possession of a taped confession by the true murderer which had not been produced at the trial. In addition, investigators found that the prosecutor of the case had possessed a transcript of the confession as well as other exculpatory evidence that had not been provided to the defense, and physical evidence was ultimately uncovered which linked the true killer with the crime. Judge Barbara Fleischer wrote a seventy-two page opinion railing against the conduct of the attorneys involved, including the public defender, who had by this time become a judge. Judge Fleischer granted a new trial, and the State of Florida declined to prosecute the matter, allowing the conviction to be dropped and Melendez cleared for release.
Ironically, the investigation which led to his release might never have occurred if not for the decision by Melendez’s appellate attorney to remove herself from his case due to the stress of having five other clients executed. Juan recalled the morbidity of living amongst the condemned. “I would know exactly when they were killing someone, because the lights in the whole prison would be flashing right then.” When he became an inmate the State of Florida had executed only 10 offenders since resuming administration of the death penalty in 1979, but that number had risen to 52 by the time he was released. Since then, Florida has performed 15 more executions.
For Melendez, impending doom itself was only one of many horrors. First, were the appalling conditions. “If I didn’t snatch up my food in five seconds after they put it in my cell, the tray would be all covered in roaches. They were hungry like I was, and waiting.” On cold nights, Melendez would have little comfort, sleeping with only a thin blanket covering his body. “I would feel the rats crawling all over the blanket, but I wouldn’t look, because I really didn’t want to see them. When one curled up on my body to get warm, I would throw off the blanket, and if I heard a loud sound when it hit the floor I would know that it had been a real big one.”
Then there was also the poor medical care. According to Melendez, one fellow inmate who collapsed in the yard outside died in part because of the inadequate care available. The guard who came to provide medical care refused to provide CPR to the man because he was black, calling him a “M– N–“, said Melendez. By the time Juan was allowed to step in and resuscitate the man, it was too late. “He took one last breath, and I think it was his soul leaving his body, because his eyes rolled back in his head. He died right there in my arms.”
These factors combined made suicide just as great a danger as execution. Melendez saw many of the other inmates rolled out after having killed themselves, and recalled that when he looked at one corpse, “His face was all blue, and he didn’t look like himself no more.” Juan struggled against depression, and admits that he contemplated suicide too. One time, he even went so far as to get a plastic bag from a non-death row inmate to make a noose. “I thought about it, and then I flushed that thing, and told myself that I wouldn’t let the system make me do that.”
Juan’s resistance to the oppressive guards and systematic demoralization was one of the ways he worked sustain his resolve. “I had to be a proud man. A Real Puerto Rican.” To Juan’s puzzlement, the other death row inmates refused to stand up to the guards, preferring to avoid incurring their wrath by not rocking the boat. Nonetheless, the solidarity among the inmates was strong, and over time they taught him to speak and read English. Juan also took refuge in religion to fight depression with faith. “Some of those guys became Muslims and prayed. Some became Buddhists and learned how to love. I became a Christian.”
When he was released, he remembers the tears of joy shared by himself and his friends who would remain condemned. Among the friends he left behind was Richard Henyard, who was executed last September, and it is the memory of his own experience and the fate of those he met that drives Melendez to fight now for the abolition of capital punishment. He believes the death penalty is ultimately applied in a racist way and that its use will inevitably result in the death of innocent men. He also believes that there is a high price paid in human cost in suffering by the families of the victims and the condemned. “I know my mama suffered more than me during all of the seventeen years, eight months and one day I was on death row.”