Open seats were scarce as students, faculty and others filled Robinson Teaching Theatre to hear civil rights activist Juan Melendez’s inspiring story on Sunday night. Wrongly convicted of murder, Melendez spent more than 17 years of his life on death row. Determined to put an end to the death penalty, Melendez shared his story about the injustice he has witnessed and the new life he was given upon his release.
Unable to afford an attorney, Melendez was appointed a lawyer from the state.
“I was no O.J Simpson,” Melendez said. “I couldn’t afford no fancy lawyer.“
Through his trial, five witnesses on his behalf lacked credibility in the court room, with ethnicity playing a key role.
“A black man’s word wasn’t taken like a white man’s,” Melendez said.
With no physical evidence against him, Melendez was convicted of murdering Delbert Baker in 1984. On Nov. 2, 1984, Melendez was sentenced with the death penalty.
“Thursday the verdict was I was guilty, and Friday they sentenced me to death,” Melendez said “The judge complained it was taking too long.”
With chains on his waist and handcuffs on his wrists, Melendez entered Florida’s death row. A new resident of a 9-by-6 cell, Melendez said he slept with rats and ate with roaches, never knowing which day would be his last.
“They’re killing people every week,” Melendez said, referring to his constant fear. “How long is it gonna be until they get me?”
Melendez found friends in his fellow inmates. They taught him to read, write and speak English, Melendez said, crucial skills Melendez needed in order to respond to his pen pals and communicate with his lawyers.
In order to keep his spirits up, Melendez said he carried with him a letter from his mother assuring him that God would set him free. His mother’s letters were consistent, telling him, “the miracle will come son, because I know you are innocent and God knows you are innocent; he will set you free.”
With death surrounding him for 17 years, Melendez also shared the story of a fellow inmate who didn’t receive appropriate medical attention. A nurse refused to give the inmate CPR, so Melendez said he stepped in to save his life.
“He let out a breath. Air came out. The air was his soul that left his body,” Melendez said. “He died in my arms.”
Witnessing the pain and suffering of his friends, and living through it himself, Melendez said he began to give up after 10 years. The idea of suicide began to tempt him after many of his friends had already died this way.
Contemplating death, Melendez said he fell into a deep sleep where he dreamed of dolphins, an island and his smiling mother. These dreams that he attributes to God were what he said made him realize he didn’t want to die.
Melendez was appointed a new attorney, who he said was his “dream team.” This attorney brought new evidence to surface: a cassette, transcripts and numerous documents of a confession from the real killer, Melendez said.
No longer anticipating his death, but rather anticipating his release, Melendez said the people on death row instantly changed the way they communicated with him. He was now approached as Mr. Melendez, and he said that felt “Hella good.”
Although saddened to say goodbye to the friends who taught him so much, Melendez left Florida’s death row on Jan. 3, 2002 a free man.
“When the doors opened, I saw a whole bunch of reporters,” Melendez said. “CNN, ABC, NBC - all the letters of the alphabet were there.”
Melendez missed the things in life that he said most people take for granted; he wanted to see the moon and the stars, he wanted to walk on grass and he wanted to to hold a baby.
With hundreds of men and women in similar situations as Melendez, he said he hopes his audiences educate themselves on the death penalty.
By getting educated, involved and speaking out about the death penalty, a change can be made. Innocent lives can be saved, Melendez said.
By Sydney Conner