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Freed Florida Death Row Inmate 'Very, Very Happy', Doesn't Hold Grudge

Man spent years awaiting execution


January 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -- A joyful Juan Roberto Melendez, freed from Florida's death row after ``17 years, eight months and one day,'' said Friday he wasn't interested in assigning blame -- he only wanted ``to see the stars and the moon.''

Released late Thursday from Union Correctional Institution after years behind bars for a murder to which another man had confessed, Melendez spent a sleepless night at his attorney's Tallahassee home before appearing before a phalanx of photographers and reporters.

A gap-toothed grin frequently broke across his face as Melendez, 50, patiently fielded questions about how he felt to finally be free.

``I had a lot of mixed feelings,'' he said, smiling. ``But they're all awfully good.''

He repeatedly declined to talk about ``anything negative,'' including his treatment in prison, though he called the loneliness of death row ``a disease.'' Nor did he criticize the prosecutors who convicted him of the 1983 murder of a Central Florida beauty school owner.

``I'm real happy and anything negative, I don't feel like talking about,'' he said.

Death penalty opponents seized on Melendez's release to renew a call for a moratorium on executions in Florida, saying the state leads the country in the number of inmates freed from death row by new evidence.

Three executions are scheduled in the next six weeks, but Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday there was ``no proof'' Melendez was wrongly convicted.

``Floridians have spoken on this issue overwhelmingly and they support capital punishment when violent murders are committed against innocent citizens,'' said Bush spokeswoman Lisa Gates. ``Imposing a moratorium without any basis would subvert justice.''

Melendez said his case pointed out ``too many gaps.''

``They make so many mistakes that an innocent man can get killed,'' he said.

Melendez is the 99th death row inmate freed on new evidence in the United States, and the 22nd in Florida, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Penalty Information Project.

Despite a lack of physical evidence, Melendez was convicted largely on testimony from an informant with a criminal record. His conviction withstood appeals to the Florida Supreme Court, but was overturned last month by Florida Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer who ordered a new trial, finding the state withheld evidence favorable to him. Melendez was released after Polk County prosecutors reluctantly concluded they no longer have the evidence to retry him.

Melendez was sentenced to die in 1984 for the murder of Delbert ``Mr. Del'' Baker in his Auburndale beauty salon. He was nearing the end of his appeals when his current attorneys contacted his former defense lawyer, Roger Alcott, who discovered a key transcript: a murder confession by Vernon James, a now-deceased witness in the case who said Melendez wasn't even at the scene.

Trial prosecutor Hardy Pickard, who the judge said failed to disclose information to the defense, declined comment Friday.

Melendez said he holds no grudge. As for whether he plans to seek damages against the state, Melendez said ``that's lawyers' business.''

But, he noted, there is ``nothing they can do to make it up to me. The only thing they can do is give me my time back and that's impossible.

He planned to return to Puerto Rico to stay with his mother. ``Now all I've got in my mind is to look after my mama,'' he said of his mother, Andrea Colon Rodriguez, in Maunubo, Puerto Rico. ``She's 73 years old. She's all alone. I just want to be with her for her last days.''

Melendez was a Brooklyn-born fruit picker who moved to Florida at 19 because it reminded him of Puerto Rico, where he grew up.

A self-described ``regular guy,'' he had only a ninth-grade education and couldn't read or write English when he went to prison at age 33. Behind bars, fellow death row inmate Jerry Rogers taught him English, he said.

Melendez said he ``never lost hope'' that he would be released.

``That's the key to surviving there,'' he said. ``You can never give up. You've got to believe in something more powerful than the system.''

Wearing a stylish gray sweater, black slacks and loafers to Friday's press conference, he was well spoken and at ease. But prison life is merciless, he said.

``All the time you spend in there, you're losing the love to be around your family, the loneliness,'' he said. ``They really don't have to kill you; they're killing you in there already.''

Though no governor ever signed a death warrant for Melendez, he said he ``was close to death the day they sentenced me.''

His release gave hope to his fellow inmates, Melendez said: ``They all wished me good luck and clapped their hands when I left. They were very happy for me.''

His attorneys with Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, the state agency that handles death appeals, beamed as Melendez spoke.

``At what point in time do these cases become enough of a concern for the courts and the governor?'' asked attorney Marty McClain, who pursued the appeal along with Bret Strand, Linda McDermott and investigator Rosa Greenbaum.

``Hats off to the state of Florida for having Capital Collateral to represent Mr. Melendez, but 17 years, eight months and one day is too long.''

McClain said the saddest moment for him came as Melendez unpacked his belongings, eager to show his lawyers a family photo album.

``I realized that's 18 years of a life all in these three little boxes,'' McClain said.

Before he entered prison, Melendez had a common-law wife and three daughters, but he said he lost touch with them. ``They're all grown up now,'' he said.

After 40 minutes of media questions, Melendez had a request: ``I would like to go now and take a nice nap.''

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