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Reuters English News Service
Facing Life On The Outside After Death Row
By Sue Pleming
March 5, 2002
WASHINGTON - Juan Roberto Melendez is often too afraid to open his eyes when he wakes up. Then the neighborhood rooster crows and he knows he is back home in Puerto Rico and not on death row in Florida.
Melendez spent l7 years on death row before he was freed in January, becoming the 99th person exonerated of a capital crime in the United States since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1973.
"I still wake up thinking I'm in that cell but then I hear the rooster and the birds and I come back to my senses," said Melendez, 50, who returned to the fishing village he left behind in Puerto Rico decades ago when he moved to Florida in search of a better life.
With at least four cases pending of death row inmates who could be innocent, anti-death penalty activists expect the 100th exoneration in the next few months.
"Our nation is approaching a shameful milestone of 100 death row exonerations and insurmountable evidence shows that our nation's death penalty system is broken," said Wayne Smith, executive director of The Justice Project, an organization lobbying against the death penalty.
Congress and state legislatures have voiced concern over mistakes in the death penalty system. Even a Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, said last year the "system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."
For those found innocent, words of concern from politicians and others have little impact on life after death row - a daily struggle of trying to find jobs, pay legal bills, restore shattered relationships and adapt to a world that changed rapidly while their lives stood still.
The initial euphoria of release is soon replaced by the reality that although they have been cleared of hideous crimes, they can never escape a suspicious public and the ghosts of years in a dingy cell awaiting death.
"You always have to try to explain yourself, even though you don't really have to. I'm still trying to get it all together but it's really hard," said Kirk Bloodsworth, who was freed in 1993 after DNA evidence proved him innocent.
Bloodsworth, a former Marine with no arrest record, was on death row for the 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl before he was officially pardoned.
On his release, he worked in a funeral home, thinking he would have a sense of empathy for people going through such an ordeal. But the funeral director soon asked him to leave as people "just didn't feel comfortable with me."
Next he tried his luck working at a toolmaker but was harassed by colleagues who left abusive notes on his car calling him a child killer and a murderer.
"The hardest thing when you are released is to find your place in life. I went in when I was 22 years old and came out when I was 33," said Bloodsworth, 41, from his home in Cambridge, Maryland.
Finally, Bloodsworth turned to the sea as a crab fisherman and found solace working under the night sky - something he had missed during his incarceration.
But that business folded last year and now, apart from the anti-death penalty campaigning he does, Bloodsworth feels his life is in limbo again.
"There's no forgetting an injustice like that and it's hard not to feel bitter," he said. "It was a horrible way to live, knowing that you could die at any time for a horrendous crime you did not commit."
Bloodsworth slept in a cell directly underneath the gas chamber for several years and still has nightmares about it.
Few of those freed go through the long and expensive process of seeking compensation from the state for the devastating mistake.
Michael Graham, 38, who was exonerated in 2000 of the 1986 murder of an elderly couple in northern Louisiana, got $10 on his release after he spent 14 years awaiting death.
His first weeks as a free man were spent holed up inside his mother's house in Roanoke, Virginia, afraid people would stare at him if he went outside.
"I have tried to rebuild my life out of nothing. I still just take it one day at a time and try to adjust, but it's hard," said Graham, who plans to get married this summer.
Graham has had a string of jobs and is now working in Ohio as a cook. He still gets panicky when people close doors and does not like being in small rooms.
"I can't stand being cooped up and I feel anxious. But me and my fiancee, we talk about it, and she gives me good advice and comfort, as does my family," said Graham.
BAD LAWYERS, DETERMINED PROSECUTORS
Most of those who are cleared of their crimes attribute their wrongful sentencing to inadequate counsel and overzealous prosecutors.
Melendez, who was convicted in 1984 for the murder of a beauty school owner, says his case was weak from the beginning. There was no physical evidence against him, he had an alibi, and his sentence was based on testimony from a prison snitch.
"I practically was convicted on the words of one man," said Melendez.
Graham said his lawyer also was inexperienced and the prosecution malicious. "One of the major things that would help the system would be to make stiffer penalties for prosecutors and police departments who withhold or obstruct evidence," he said.
Melendez, like others freed from death row, is astounded at the changes on the outside, even in his sleepy village of Maunabo. Many of the sugar cane fields he remembered have been replaced by fancy houses and there are now sidewalks.
Graham recalls driving with his lawyer after his release and being confused when she started talking into a tiny telephone microphone in her car.
"I couldn't believe it that she didn't have a receiver. I'd never seen anything like that before. The world changed so much while I was inside. Technology moved so fast and I got left behind."
Graham points out there are other casualties of wrongful convictions: the families of the crime victim.
"I've often thought of the family of those people," he said. "What happened doesn't just make a victim out of me, it makes a victim out of the victim's families."