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Orlando Sentinel

Grave Mistake Resurrects

By Maria T. Padilla

January 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Juan Meléndez was a dead man until the state of Florida reversed his death sentence and set him free last week.

This modern-day Lazarus was touched by extraordinary grace, and yet the news account received only 9.7 inches in two wire-service stories in the Sentinel.

Without a doubt, the Sentinel dropped the ball on this important story. Here's what the Sentinel didn't tell you:

Meléndez is the 99th death-row prisoner to be set free in the United States. He is either the 24th to go free in Florida, according to the St. Petersburg Times, or the 22nd, as reported by The Miami Herald, which played the story of Meléndez's release on its front page -- and rightly so.

It's not every day that the judicial system admits it locked up the wrong person. Meléndez, 50, spent nearly 18 years in prison for the 1983 murder of Delbert Baker, a beauty-school owner in Polk County. Meléndez was approaching the end of his appeals -- smell the death serum -- when his former defense attorney found new evidence that set him free.

The evidence was a transcript by a material witness who confessed to being involved in the crime. In addition, another state witness, who now is dead, had recanted.

Gov. Jeb Bush said "no proof" existed of a wrongful conviction, the Herald reported. But in fact, at least one judge raised doubts about the case during a 1986 appeal, the Times wrote.

Eyewitness testimony is quite common in criminal proceedings, even though eyewitness accounts often are shaky and unreliable. This is what happened in the case of Meléndez, a former farm worker.

In a Tallahassee news conference after his release, Meléndez, who is Puerto Rican, declined to say whether he would sue the state. However, such suits -- followed by a generous settlement -- also are common in these cases.

Naturally, death-penalty opponents jumped on the Meléndez case, calling for a state moratorium on executions, of which six are planned in the coming weeks, the Herald reported.This is where I part company with the opponents because I believe in the death penalty. Despite what happened to Meléndez, it is far more likely that the people behind bars belong exactly where they are.

Such egregious "mistakes," however, cause the public to lose confidence in the judicial system. For example, cases of wrongful convictions had become so common in Illinois that its governor suspended the death penalty.

Twenty-two or 24 unjustly sentenced death row inmates set free in Florida also is upsetting. Stories such as Meléndez's should make us pause to reconsider how such capital murder cases are tried. It's a newspaper's obligation to raise these questions or readers may lose confidence in its reporting.

Fairness and justice dictate that Meléndez have the last word. He walked out of prison with new clothes provided by the state and $100. Later this week, he is scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico to be reunited with his 73-year-old mother in the pretty seaside town of Maunabo.

His mother, Andrea Colón, told El Nuevo Día of Puerto Rico that her son called her as soon as he was released. "Mami, I'm out," he reportedly said. "Imagine, 17 years and he was innocent," Colón said.

"Juan's case shows that in the United States, where people talk of democracy, errors are committed," Colón told El Nuevo Día. Indeed. And that, readers, is the rest of the story.

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