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The Salt Lake Tribune
Survivor Calls Capital Punishment 'Madness'
By Pamela Manson
22 September 2004
Two numbers have dominated Juan Roberto Melendez Colon's life in the past few decades.
The first is 8-046466, his inmate number during the nearly 18 years he spent on Florida's death row.
The second is 99, his ranking among condemned prisoners nationwide who have been exonerated and released since capital punishment was reinstated in 1973.
"When it [his case] first started, I was naive to the law," Melendez said Tuesday about the 1984 arrest that started his journey through the justice system. "I thought when I was done with the process, I would be let go.
"I was wrong."
Convicted for a murder he insisted he hadn't committed, Melendez sat in a cell for the next 17 years, eight months and one day, while the Florida Supreme Court rejected three appeals. Finally a judge ruled he deserved a new trial and prosecutors decided to drop the case.
Since his release from the Florida State Prison on Jan. 3, 2002, Melendez, 53, has traveled the nation to speak out against capital punishment. In Utah this week, Melendez said the system of imposing the death penalty is flawed beyond repair.
"Once you are indicted with a grand jury, there is no turning back," Melendez told The Salt Lake Tribune a few hours before he spoke at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.
Judi Caruso, a New Mexico attorney and human rights activist who also spoke at the university, said that Melendez's experience is not unusual.
"The death penalty system is error-prone," Caruso said.
Melendez, a migrant worker who grew up in Puerto Rico and spoke little English at the time, was convicted of the 1983 murder of Delbert Baker, a cosmetology school owner. He claims prosecutors targeted him after cutting deals with two acquaintances, including a now-deceased man believed to be the real killer.
After years of being ignored by the courts, a new lawyer took over Melendez's appeals and discovered a cassette tape with incriminating statements by the real killer at the trial attorney's office. That tape, along with other favorable evidence, was turned over to Judge Barbara Fleisher, who struck down the conviction in December 2001.
Fleisher said the prosecutor had withheld crucial evidence that substantiated Melendez's claim of innocence. The state, without acknowledging any wrongdoing, declined to retry the case.
"If I would have lost this appeal, I wouldn't have lasted long," Melendez said.
He captivated his audience Tuesday night with his dramatic story of being convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery despite having an alibi backed by four witnesses.
"When they sentenced me to death, my heart got full of hate," Melendez said. "I was scared, very scared, to die for something I didn't do."
The hatred and fear accompanied him to his rat- and roach- infested prison cell, he said. He first planned to get into shape so he could fight the guards who one day would come to take him to the death chamber; he also considered suicide.
"I'm not walking to that chair," Melendez said.
But then he found hope. The condemned men around him, the ones considered monsters by many, taught him to read, write and speak English, he said. He followed the example of many and embraced a faith, in his case, Christianity.
And he started having dreams of Puerto Rico, a sign that God knew he didn't do it, Melendez said.
One month after his conviction was overturned, Melendez walked out of prison to the cheers of his fellow death-row inmates. During his years of incarceration, he said, "I learned how to forgive, how to have compassion for others, how to love."
He moved back to Puerto Rico, where he lives with his 74-year- old mother in Manuabo. He also counsels troubled youths who are hired at the plantain field where he works.
"The years are gone," Melendez said. "I'm just taking a negative situation and making something positive."
He urged his audience to form a coalition in Utah to abolish the death penalty.
"We can get rid of this madness," he said.
Two U. law professors at the event also encouraged listeners to get involved in the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), which works to clear wrongly convicted defendants in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Jensie Anderson, RMIC president, said the group is on the verge of exonerating two inmates, one of them in Utah.
Melendez is scheduled to speak again today at 6 p.m. at the Union Theater, Olpin Student Union Building, at the University of Utah. The talk is free and open to the public.
The groups sponsoring his appearances include the Minority Law Caucus and the Public Interest Law Organization at the Quinney law school; the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah; the Utah Minority Bar Association; the Utah People for Peace and Justice; and the Utah Coalition of La Raza.
Caption: Life has not always been blue skies for Juan Roberto Melendez Colon. He spent nearly 18 years on death row in Florida before being cleared of a murder charge. "The years are gone," he says. "I'm just taking a negative situation and making something positive."; Jump page C3: "When they sentenced me to death, my heart got full of hate," Juan Melendez says. "I was scared, very scared, to die for something I didn't do." He spoke Tuesday at U. of U. law school.