Innocence Project Northwest
November 2, 2008
Good afternoon. Hi, my name's Jackie McMurtrie. I am the Director of
the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic here at the Law School, and so
it's my delight to welcome you here today for this really wonderful
event with Mr. Juan Melendez.
some of you may know the Innocence Project Northwest has been in
existence for over 10 years. During that time we've been successful in
overturning the convictions of 12 people in Washington state prisons.
Innocence Project Northwest Student Chapter is an important support to
our efforts in providing public education and community forums to
discuss these issues, the causes of wrongful convictions and the
So it's just a delight to have as the first event,
sponsored by the Student Chapter and the National Lawyer skilled
Student Chapter, Mr. Juan Melendez here today. He spent 17 years on
Florida's Death Row, before he was exonerated for a crime he did not
commit. He's going to share with you this harrowing experience of being
a victim of the criminal justice system.
So, please join me in welcoming Mr. Melendez.
Thank you. Thank you, Jackie. Thank you, thank you. Before I start, I
want to thank all of you for being here. Also I want to thank Ms.
Shirley, Sister over here, Lerner, and Ms. Jackie, to make this
as I tell my story, I want you to keep in mind that it's not at all
unique, it happens all the time. I'm the number 99th person to be
released from Death Row in the nation, and that's been because of the
issue of the innocent, and today has been 130. Also there has been
1,120 people in security, the majority of them in the state of Texas.
Only God knows how many of them did not have the luck that I had, and
that was innocent. Also as I tell my story, if you feel like
crying-cry. If you feel like laughing-laugh. But please--don't fall
asleep on me.
My name is Juan Roberto Melendez. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but
I was raised on the island of Puerto Rico. They took me back to the
island when I was just a little kid. This is what I remember about the
island; I remember going to school bare-footed. I remember that there
was a lot of disease. I remember that it was bad water. When you drink
this bad water and you walk bare-footed, you get this disease. So a lot
of my little brothers died, a lot of little friends died, I survived. I
guess I've always been a survivor.
I go around the country, and I've been just about in every state in the
United States and abroad. I've been in over 12 countries in Europe.
I've been in Canada about three or four times. I tell the audience my
worst mistakes in life. My worst mistakes in life are when; I stopped
listening to my mama, I stopped listening to the teachers. I stopped
listening to these old people that give me good advice, and went to
Guayama and left the older one in there, pay no attention, but it's one
that I've got to take to the grave. I can't hardly forgive myself for
it, that's when I dropped out of school.
I dropped out of
school in the 9th grade. I became a man before time. I was cutting
sugar cane when I was 16-17 years old, and when I hit 18 I got tired of
it. So I decided to leave the island to make a better life for myself,
sinking, searching for what they call "The American Dream."
Unfortunately, instead I lived "The American Nightmare."
I became what you call a fruit picker, a migrant worker. That part of
my life I'm proud of, because I was earning the money the honest way.
So I went to Delaware, and I picked everything God created over there.
When we finished the season, I decided to go to the state of Florida to
get the citrus fruit, the grapefruit, the orange, and the lemons.
is what I can tell you about Florida, how I walked in certain roles in
my life, very dangerous roles, but never thought, never crossed my
mind, never imagined that one day I would be convicted and sentenced to
death for a crime I did not commit.
This journey, this other
section in my life, it started in the month of February, 1984. I had to
leave Florida early that year, because the citrus fruit got hit by the
frost. So all the grapefruits and oranges, they fell down, all we had
to do was pick them up. So we were without a job in no time.
that forced me to migrate from the state of Florida all the way to the
state of Pennsylvania, where I knew a farmer that would hire me to
prune the peaches and the apple trees. I'll never forget this day, it
was a beautiful day. It was on a Monday, May 2nd, 1984.
were eating lunch under an apple tree. Here come a whole bunch of FBI
agents in their cars, riding the hills. They stopped in front of us.
They came out of their cars with weapons in their hands, and they
pointed at us. They told us to hit the ground, and we did.
they called my name, but I was scared to get up because of the weapon
that was pointing at me, but I raised my arm. Then they told me to get
up and walk down with them, and I did. Then they told me to open my
mouth, they wanted to see if I had a missing tooth, and I showed it to
them-I still have it. Then they told me to lift the sleeves of my shirt
of my left arm. They want to see a tattoo, and I showed it to them.
they told me, "Yes, you are the man we are looking for. You are wanted
for unlawfully fleeing to avoid prosecution. We have warrants. We have
warrants for your arrest for first degree murder and armed robbery."
Then they read me some rights, and they slapped some handcuffs on me.
Took me in the police car, and took me to a federal prison.
week or so after that, they took me to court in front of an
administrator, a federal judge. He was talking about extradition, but I
did not know what extradition mean. I was naive to the law, naive to
the language, didn't know the language that well.
barely told me at that time to explain to me what extradition mean. All
he told me in Spanish was, "You either fight it or waive it; they're
going to take you back anyway." So I start thinking, "I'm not a killer.
My mama did not raise no killers. I will waive it, and as soon as they
solve this case in Florida, they will let me go." Well, how wrong I was.
I waived extradition, and they fly me from the state of Pennsylvania
all the way back to the state of Florida. A week or so after my
arrival, they took me to court in front of a judge. He was reading the
charges to me, "You've been indicted, arrested for first degree murder
and armed robbery in the state of Florida, the sentence the death
penalty against you, the electric chair."
A week or so after
that they took me back, right back to court with the same judge, this
time to call upon a lawyer to me, a public defender. The truth is I'm
not "O.J. Simpson." I don't have money to hire lawyers. So this public
defender, I can hardly understand him. He never gave me an interpreter,
but he used to pat me on the back and tell me, "Not to worry about it.
You're going home." I did understand that 'going home' stuff. I should
go home; I did not commit this crime.
So now I'm going to
trial. Monday, we start picking the jury. Tuesday, we're still picking
the jury. Tuesday evening after they ... So they picked 11 Whites and
one African American person, and no Hispanic, and I'm Hispanic. They
read instructions to the jury how to conduct themselves in a capital
murder case, with a sentence, the death penalty.
that's when the evidence came in, and this is what they had against me.
They have what you call a police informant, what they call in the
streets a snitch. He claimed that I confessed the crime to him. This
same police informant, the snitch also implicates another person in the
crime, an African American man, a Black man, a friend of mine-that's
what I thought.
So he gets arrested. He gets arrested, he
gets interrogated. He makes fiction statement, he incriminate himself
in the crime. He gets charged with it, first degree murder, armed
robbery, and they threaten him with the electric chair.
time to make a deal. You see the United States prosecutors make deals
with criminals. So he was able to strike a deal with this statement,
gets his first degree murder charge dropped, gets his armed robbery
charge dropped, all the way to accessory after the fact. Gets two years
probation, with two years he already had. He gets sentenced to two
years probation after I'm convicted and sentenced to death.
what he is saying that I was, I picked him up, took him to the scene of
the crime, dropped him off, came an hour and a half later, pick him up
again, took him home, don't know what happened too, after it happened.
That's the entire evidence against me, no physical evidence, just two
questionable witnesses with a criminal record from here to California.
Two questionable witnesses, that make deals with the state, make deals
with the prosecutor and they give amnesties for their own crimes they
This is what I had on my favor, on the defense side.
I had what you call an alibi witness. I had four witnesses
collaborating the alibi testimony. I had all the witnesses testifying,
claiming that the police informant had a grudge against me. But I had a
problem, every witness that I had on my side was from the African
American race, a Black man, a Black woman. When a Black man and a Black
woman testify for the state, for the prosecutor, all of a sudden they
got good credibility, they even dressed them.
But when a
Black man and a Black woman testify for the defense on my side, all of
a sudden the credibility is gone. Thursday they found me guilty.
Friday, and this is the same week, they sentenced me to death, and the
judge complained that it was taking too long. When they sentenced me to
death, my heart got full of hate. I became an angry man. I hated the
prosecutor. I hated the jurors. I hated the judge, and I hated that one
that one pat me in the back, my trial defense lawyer, because I failed,
he betrayed me.
But overall, I thought we Puerto Rican men
were real macho men. I found out different. I was scared, very scared
to die for a crime I did not commit. So now I'm going on Death Row, and
I'll never forget that day. It was an ugly day. It was on a Tuesday,
November the 2nd, 1984. The place was horrifying, it was dark, it was
cold, and they keep me in a six by nine foot cell. Any time they move
me out of that cell for whatever reasons, I got shackles in my legs,
chains in my waist, and handcuffs in my wrists. The place was also
infected with rats and roaches.
So they throw me down in the
bottom floor, 17 condemned Death Row prisoners in the bottom floor, 17
in the second floor, 17 in the third, and I made the 248 condemned men
to death in the state of Florida, since they reinstated the death
penalty in the nation in 1976.
The food, they put the food
in a cart. They wheel that cart in the floor in the wing where you're
at, and breakfast, that's the worst one. You see they come real early,
and they never wake you up. So they place the breakfast tray and a flag
that you had in your cell door, like a big mail flag. If you wait five
seconds in your bunk to get up, to get your breakfast, forget about it.
You're wasting your time, you ran out of luck. You see, the roaches
will beat you to it. They're waiting for their breakfast too.
gets cold in Northern Florida, and they supply us with a thin blanket.
I take that blanket, and I covered my foot, face, and all. I don't want
to see nothing. But the rats, they also get cold. They want to get
warm, so they climb that blanket and I can feel that rat is running up
and down. I don't want to look at him, because if I look at him, I'm
not going to be able to sleep. But when that rat stays still in my
chest, I get a good grip of the blanket and I shake it hard as I can,
and I can hear that rat hit the floor, "Boom!" It is a big one.
I arrive over there on a Tuesday, not that Thursday. The following
Thursday, they executed the 10th person in the State of Florida, when I
leave that place, 51, today 64, and still counting. But when they
executed that 10th person, I got super scared. You see, I do not know
the language that well, I do not know the process. I am lost in there.
So the thought's in my mind, "They're killing people here every week.
How long is it going to be before they get me?"
So I know
how to box, and I know all these exercises that you can keep your
muscles flexible and defend yourself. So I'm thinking if they come to
get me, I'm just going to fight them. I'm not walking to that chair.
When I think about it, I'm scared of electricity anyway. So, now I had
to come up with a plan. So I decided to take the sheets from my bunk,
and cut it all in pieces and make ropes with it, and tie the cell door
bars. You see the cell door bars slide like this. I tied this end, and
when they push the button in the control room, that door is moving
So I'm thinking by the time they cut them ropes up,
I can get me a good warm-up, and when they come in and get me, I can
defend myself. So now I'm doing exercise. You see, I'm trying to get
muscle coming out of my eyebrows. I'm trying to intimidate these
people. I'm trying to scare these people, but I'm the one intimidated,
I am the one scared.
So it's around count time, and I got
the doors all tied up, and here come this correction officer. He's a
big, tall African American person, a Black man. He had muscles in his
eyebrows. So he stopped in front of my cell, and when he see the doors
all tied up, he gets angry and he started cursing. I do not know too
much English, but I know how to curse. So I remind him of his mother,
father; all the way down.
So, now me and this correction officer, we are in there cursing each
other out, and the rest of the condemned men to death, they got
involved in the argument. But to my surprise, it's against me. They
tell me that I'm wrong. So now I get angry with them, and I tell them
the best way I can I know they're killing people here every week, and
we are doing nothing. We're supposed to fight these people. We're
supposed to burn the place down. We Puerto Ricans, we don't go out like
that doing nothing, we fight.
Transcription by CastingWords
still told me that I was a fool, and I was crazy. They told me that I
get up in the morning and get in the cell door bars, and cry and curse
about my innocence. Then they told me that I did not know how to read,
I did not know how to write, I did not know how to speak English.
they told me the best thing I could hear at that time, they told me
they would teach me. You see, the worst of the worst, the most
undesirable people in the nation, the ones that some prosecutors called
monsters, taught this Puerto Rican how to write, how to read, and how
to speak English.
If they would never taught me, I would
never be able to communicate better with my lawyers. I would not be
able to reply the letters that they sent me. Some of them from this
great state of Washington, that show me so much love, so much
compassion, that make me feel like a human being, and today I would not
be able to share this sad story with all of you.
I spent 17
years, eight months, and one day, in front of that Death Row for a
crime I did not commit. After 10 years, I was tired of it. I wanted out
of there, but the only way out is to commit suicide, and believe me
lots of my friends committed suicide. I'm going to tell you how they do
it. They got what they call a runner. A runner is an inmate that's
doing time in prison population; he's not sentenced to death. They get
this runner, this inmate out of prison population, so he can do the
work in the Death Row facility.
He is the one to supply us
with the food, the toothpaste, the toothbrush, the mop and the broom,
so you can clean your cell. He also can supply you with a tool that you
can take your life with, and he knows it. All you got to do is give him
four stamps or a pack of cigarette rolling paper tobacco, the cheap
kind, and he will give you this tool.
Perhaps he do it
because these item that I just mentioned are more important to him than
your life, or perhaps he do it because he call himself assisting you.
He works there, he know you want out of there, he know that Death Row
The tool was really simple. It's a garbage can
plastic bag, the one you see around the garbage cans. You give him four
stamps and when the guard ain't looking, he will swing that bag inside
your cell. You take that bag, and you twist it all up and you make a
rope. Then you put a noose in it, you put the noose in your neck and
you tie all the ends in the cell door bars, you throw yourself down,
you're dead, but you're free.
That's what the demons used to
tell me. "Why? Why you got to go through all this? You're supposed to
be a Puerto Rican man, a real macho man. Don't satisfy them, satisfy
yourself. You say you didn't do it, you think they're going to believe
you? They're going to kill you anyway. So grab that rope. And these
thoughts was staying in my mind.
I never see my friends kill
themselves, because I cannot see through the walls. But I see when they
wheeled the body out. Something in the back of my head tells me, you
want to look at your friend for the last time? So I grabbed a mirror
that I had in my cell and I stretched my arms through the bars with
that mirror. And I look, this is what I see.
I see a purple,
blue face that do not look like my friend. I get to see something else,
too. I get to see the noose on his neck because they never take it out.
And that stay in my mind. So now when I take this trip. You see, I'm
tired of it. I want out of there. I'm depressed.
So I tell
the brother, get me that garbage bag. So I take that bag and I twist it
all up. And I make a rope, then I put a noose in it. Then I look at it
and I look at my bunk and I say to myself I better lay down and think
about this a little bit more.
So I take that rope and I
throw under the bunk so when the guards walk by they don't see it. And
I laid down. When I lay down I fall in a deep, deep sleep. I start
dreaming that I'm a little kid again, doing the things I used to do
when I was a little kid, the things that make me laugh, the things that
make me happy.
You see, I born in Brooklyn, NY, but I raised
on the island of Puerto Rico. When I get up in the morning and I look
to the east side there's a wonderful mountain. And if I walk six
minutes to the south I find myself in the most beautiful beach in the
world. It looks to me.
So here I am dreaming that I'm
swimming in the beautiful Caribbean Sea. The water is warm. The sun is
bright. The sky is blue. The palm trees look so good. It's a beautiful
day. Then I gets to see something that I never seen before, four
dolphins coming my way. And a pair get on one side. And a pair get on
the other side.
And they start flipping and jumping like
dolphin do and having a ball in there. I am so happy. And then I look
to the shore and it's a lady that's waving at me, smiling at me and she
seems so happy. And I know why she's happy. She's happy because I'm
happy. That's my dear mother.
And then I wake up. When I
wake up the bunk smell like a beach. So I got that rope last night to
take my life with and I walk straight to the toilet with it and I look
at it and I look at the rope. I say real loud, "I don't want to die!"
and I flush it.
For the next five years, there were lots and
lots of beautiful dreams. Every time I got depressed, every time I
wanted out of there, every time suicide thoughts came to my mind, I
would pray to God, send me a beautiful dream. And I was wise enough to
take all those dreams as a sign of hope that one day I would be out of
there. I would be free.
Like God was telling me, hey, I know
you didn't do it. But I control the time. You'll get out when I say you
get out. You just got to trust me. When I acknowledge everything, I
came to this conclusion: it took 17 years, eight months and one day to
also change the man.
Eternity is a law made by human beings
and carried out by human beings. We all know, we humans, we make
mistakes. The death penalty should also know that they bring a lot of
pain on both sides of the family -- on the family of victim of
homicides, and the family of the woman and man that is condemned to
Where family is concerned this is all I had: momma
and five aunts. Oh, I had brothers. I got sisters. I got uncles. I got
lots of cousins. But they never wrote me a letter. Just momma and five
aunts. I do not know how the aunts are in this generation, but in my
generation when I was growing up, if my aunt caught me doing something
wrong, believe me, it's going to be a good ass whopping.
then I got to pray to God that she don't tell momma. Because when she
tell momma, it's going to be another good ass whopping. But when I was
hungry, they feed me. When I needed a pair of pants, they bought it for
me. And they wrote. They never forgot me.
They wrote me lots
and lots of letters. They send me lots and lots of pictures, photos of
the ones that are born and I never seen. And I saw all of them grow up
through pictures. Love to keep the family together. And momma, I'm
afraid I have to tell you that, I believe she suffered more than
anybody. She also wrote me lots and lots of letters that gave me so
much hope that helped me keep the will to live.
And this one
letter that I keep with me all the time and when I'm down and out, sad
and weak, I read it. And it always boosts me up. And it go like this,
she wrote and say:
"Son, I just built an altar. In that
altar I put the statue of the vision of the Guadalupe in it. And I got
roses and I put it in it. And I pray five rosaries a day, looking for a
[Background noise] Sorry about that.
the miracle will come, son. Because I know you are innocent and God
know that you innocent. But you got to put your trust in him and he
will set you free."
It took 17 years, eight months and one
day when the miracle came true. Thank God for that. But in spite of all
that faith and hope that my momma had in God, she was saving the money
to bring the body back to the island in case the State of Florida would
persecute me. And no mother in this world should go through that pain.
conditions that especially the medical conditions, oh, you better not
get sick in Death Row. You see, they love to use common sense. And the
common sense is always against you. Why? Why give you the best
medication when the government can sign your death warrant today and
kill you tomorrow?
Why waste the best medication on a person
that's condemned to death? And all of you to understand or comprehend
the condition, the medical condition, the type of people that run this
Unfortunately, I had to share with you another
sad story. We go to the yard four hours a day. Two hours on a Monday,
two hours on a Wednesday, if it's not raining. They got a word that the
weathermen use a lot when it is bad weather and they use it inside,
too. Inclement weather today. No yard. And there is one drop of rain
But this day we all went. The only one that told me
how to read, how to write and how to speak English, but in particular
this African-American person, this black man, I call him "Brothers."
They all taught me, how to read and how to write and how to speak
English. But this one, he was pushy. You need to learn this. You need
to learn that. And I love him dear for that, because I learned a lot
The brothers they loved to play basketball. Some
others, played volleyball. I lift weights because I can burn steam and
go back to the cell and rest a little bit better. So the brother, my
friend, is playing basketball and all of a sudden he falls to the
ground. And we all got concerned.
We went to check him out
to see what was wrong with him. And when I got close to him, I noticed
that white foam was coming out of his mouth and nose. So assume it's
got to be a stroke, a heart attack. So we tell the guards in the gate,
you have a man down that need medical assistance.
their time with a walkie-talkie. They call the clinic. And here comes
this so called nurse. He was a tall white man with a great big belly.
And they let him inside the gate and from the gate they told us in the
yard to put our back to the fence.
And from the gun towers,
they point machine guns at us. And you better not move, they would
shoot you. So now, this let this so called nurse inside the yard. And I
notice he don't have no medical bag, but he had something. He had about
a half a pound of chewing tobacco in his mouth. And every once in a
while, he spits.
He's in the yard now and there's a brother
on the ground. So we tell him: he's not breathing. He need air. So he
say, I got to go back to the clinic and get an oxygen tank. And he
spits. So he walks real slow to the clinic. And come back, walking real
slow with an oxygen tank.
He gets in the yard and puts the
accident down and my friend Marvin, then, the nurse get ups again. And
we tell him. He's still not breathing. He need air. And he say, I got
to back again to the clinic and get another accident this one in here
is not working. And he spits.
And I tell him, you don't have
to. You can do CPR mouth to mouth. But telling one of them to do CRR,
mouth to mouth, to a brother in the ground you are wasting your time.
Well, he looks up. Then he looks down. Then he makes a statement using
these two racist words: the M and the N. I'm not going to put my mouth
in there and he spits.
I tell him, you don['t have to. I do
it. You just do the counting. And he agreed. I'm so glad he agreed. You
see, I'm trying to save my friend's life. So I rushed down there. And I
took my tee shirt off and I wipe from friend what he had on his mouth
and nose. And the so-called nurse, he start counting.
two, three and I blow air. One, two, three, and I blow air again. One,
two, three and I blow air. My friend opened his eyes. I'm so glad he
opened his eyes. I see a sign of hope. He's going to live! But all of a
sudden his eyes roll back. Then he made a frown with his face and mouth.
can see right because he never left me. Then he breathed real hard and
air came out. I think that's where his soul left him, because he died
right in my arms.
So now I'm angry. And I want to do
something to that nurse that let my friend die in the yard like a dog.
When I took a swing at him, here come the rest to condemn me to death.
Snatch me out of there. Throw me in a corner and they say: "Puerto
Rican Johnny, don't get in more trouble than you are already in. We got
other ways to handle this."
I still go to confinement for 90
days for disrespecting the member of the staff, whatever that mean. But
I learned a lesson. I learned that I had to trust, rely and look for
something more powerful than the system. And the only thing I could see
that more powerful than the system is our creator, God.
truth is that a condemned woman or man to death that do not grab
something that is spiritual will go crazy or commit suicide. Some of
them become Muslims and praise Allah and they teach others how to read,
how to write, how to speak English, how to respect.
them become Buddhists. I don't know what they praise. But they teach
others how to have compassion, how to love, how to forgive. Some of
them become Christians. That's what I did. I had to go back to my roots
and remember everything my momma told me about the Virgin Mary, Jesus
Christ and the Holy Ghost.
The truth is she's Catholic to
the bones. And this is my personal opinion, only mine. I believe we are
serving the same God with different names. All we got to do is make
good choices in life, do good deeds and we have no problem going to
This friend of mine that the State of Florida, let
him die in the yard like a dog, one month after his death he wins a new
trial. But the State of Florida let my friend die in the yard like a
dog. The State of Florida denied my friend his right to prove his
So now you know about the suicide and you know
about the condition, but especially the medical condition. In fact, the
people that run this facilities, let me tell you the worst of all. The
worst of all is when the government kill. When they execute someone.
You see them. I'm in the cell. And in the next cell to me is another
man condemned to death. I have him for 10 or 15 years.
cries in my shoulders. I cries in his. He share his most intimate
thoughts with me. I share mine with him. I grow to learn to love him.
One day they snatch him out of the cell and I know what's going to
happen. They are going to kill him. And I cannot stop it.
in my time is the electric chair. And they got to generate the chair
with electricity. And I can hear this boozy sound. Mmmm, mmmmm, that
still stay in my mind. And I cannot stop it. And believe me, some of
them are innocent. Like Jesse Tafero, Bennie Demps, Leo Jones, Pedro
Medina. The last one they executed, the last one before that they was
given the state of Florida.
Dear friend, home boy, Angel Diaz, and I still cannot stop it. What I can say, I see you soon. But enough of disaster stories.
me tell you how I got out of there. And I tell you right from the jump,
I was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system. I
was saved by the grace of God. Pure luck, if you want to call it luck.
So here comes my attorney with tears running down her cheeks. And she tells me, "Juan, I cannot handle your case no more."
And I say, "Miss Gayle, why? I don't need no new lawyers now. You know my case better than anybody."
she tells me, "You know why. I lost five clients. They are your
friends." Don't misunderstand what I'm saying when I say she lost five
clients. Yes, five clients that got killed. If you want to become a
criminal lawyer and I wish you will because we need you, be careful
with these death penalty cases.
There's going to be a time
when you got to tell your client that make peace with your family. I do
it the best I can for you. Well, make peace with your family assume
that it's over. It's not a situation that you want to go through.
she tells me, "Don't worry about it, Juan. I'm going to get the agency
to sign the best three lawyers they got and the best investigator." I
finally got the dream team. So here come my new lawyer. And he tells
me, "Melendez, you have lost too many appeals."
I reply by saying, "Tell me something new."
Then he say, "But we going to try one more time, but if you lose this one you'll be lucky if you live three years."
say, "No, man, if I lose this one, I be lucky if I live a year and a
half. You know who the government of Florida is. Old Jeb Bush he would
have no problem in signing it."
So now he start using words
to send the investigator out to see my trial defense lawyer. Remember
the one that used to pat me on the back. And the first miracle occur,
my trial defense lawyer just became a judge. I'm so glad he became a
judge. You see, by him becoming a judge it creates what they call in
the legal world a conflict of interest. And that conflict of interest
gave me the opportunity to move my case out of that racist county.
of the county where the family created the case against me. The county
where the old boy network operates. And it moves from Bartow, Polk
County, Florida. And by the way, boy, don't go over there. [laughter]
It moves to Hillsborough County, Tampa, Florida.
in the hands of a ferocious woman, a female judge that go by the name
of the Honorable Barbara Fletcher. I can sincerely say I owe her my
life. So going back in the story when my investigator going to see my
trial defense lawyer, the one who pat me on the back that just is a
He tells her, "I'm a judge now. I got a new office.
But in the old office where I used to do my defense work, I think there
is a box in there with the name 'Melendez' on it. You can go in there
and have it."
So she rush over there and grabbed that box,
took it to her office, went inside it and dug out a tape cassette and
play it. Guess what, the confession of the real killer was in that tape
cassette. And my trial defense lawyer, the one who used to put on the
back, had it one month before trial. So now this opened a can of worms.
the judge heard this taped confession of the real killer, she decide to
make a court order to the prosecutor office and the man he sent files
on my case. And he did.
Guess what? He had a copy, a
transcript of the taped confession of the real killer. He also had it
one month before trial. But he had something else, too. He had 16
documents that corroborated the taped confession of the real killer. 16
documents that he never turned in to trial defense lawyer at the time
of the trial.
What creates in the legal world a evidence
violation, withholding exculpatory evidence, evidence that indicate you
did not commit the crime. By that time I already had three evidentiary
hearings and I was able to establish more than 20 witnesses that also
corroborated the taped confession of the real killer, including the
wife and sister of the real killer.
And current law
enforcement officers. Including a former FBI agent. Including a former
prosecutor investigator. Including friends of the real killer, criminal
lawyers. In the end they even found physical evidence against the real
killer. The real killer was also a police informant.
Honorable Barbara Fletcher got all the ammunition and she decided to
write 72-page opinion on it. And that 72 page opinion, he chastised the
prosecutor for the way he handled the case. She chastised law
enforcement officers for the way they investigated the case. And she
chastised them in the back for the way he called himself defending me.
she ordered a new trial. And she let them know and opinion that the
case was damaged, everything in the case you have an innocent man on
Death Row. The prosecutor decided not to process the case, dropped the
case, dismissed the case. And that's why I'm here, thank God. Talking
to you now.
Thank you. I never know
the time and date that was going to release me. It caught me totally by
surprise. They came to my cell and put shackles on my legs, chains in
my waist and handcuffs in my wrists. And they took me to a place that
they called information room. It's right there not too far from the
Death Row facilities.
They sat me in a chair and in front of
me is a desk and behind the desk is a lady working computers. And she
started making some crazy questions. She asked me for my social
security number and I wonder why, but I give it to her. I know it by
Then she came up with some more silly questions.
Where do you work at? What type of job do you have? Who are you working
with? And I almost give her a weird look, because she got up off her
chair and put both hands in the desk that was in front of me. And she
looked straight in my eyes and she say, "Melendez, you do not
understand what's going on here, do you?"
I said, "Lady, I
don't have the slightest idea. I live cross the streets. I been in
there for almost 18 years. I'm in Death Row. They don't have no jobs in
Then she say, "Melendez, you are facing your paperwork. They are going to release you today."
I don't know if you watch cartoons, and you see this cartoon character,
he takes a sledge hammer and he's hit on the head with it. And then you
can see another come straight up. And he got stars that's going around
his head. He's in a state of shock! But he's smiling.
how I was, in a state of shock, but smiling. And I'm still smiling
today. Then the correction officers they start acting different. They
offer me sandwiches and soda pops.
say, "No, I don't want no sandwich. I don't want no soda pop. I want to
go back to my cell and pack everything up and get the hell out of
here." Then I had to take physicals and I was first for everything.
They move everybody out of the way, home instead of me.
then they start calling me something they never called like that
before. They start calling me, "Mr. Melendez." I liked that. And then
by that time everybody knew that I was going to be released from Death
So I pack everything up and all of a sudden my cell
door packed right open. And I find myself with the captain of the
prison and two correction officers. And I'm going to lie to you. I got
scared again, because I no trust these people.
But I turn
around so they can slap the handcuffs on me. And when they put the
handcuffs on me, the captain of the prison told him, "No, don't put no
handcuffs on Mr. Melendez today. Mr. Melendez is a free man. Mr.
Melendez is going home. Mr. Melendez walks out of here without
handcuffs." I liked that, too.
So now, I want to say goodbye
to the man in the last cell and I'm in the cell next to last. So I come
out my cell and I got tears that's running down my cheeks. And I got a
smile in my face. But I cannot say nothing. I'm happy but part of me is
still sad, because I'm leaving them behind.
And I know
what's going to happen. If we do not abolish the death penalty, they
are going to kill them all. Well, he was able to say something. He had
tears running down his cheeks and a smile on his face. He was able to
speak and this is what he said. His first word was, "Don't get in no
trouble there." Then he say, "Take care of yourself." Then he say,
"Don't forget about us."
Then he say, last word was, "Take
care of you momma." They all know my momma. This man that told me these
words, his name is Collins Hills. He changed his name to Rachar. He
became a Muslim. Unfortunately. I have to tell you that. On Sept. 20 of
last year, he was executed. God rest his soul.
So now, I'm
walking down the hallway and there's about everyone of them telling me
the same thing. And then before I get to the door that's going to lead
me out of the wing, out of that floor, I hear a clap. Then I hear the
second clap. Then I hear the third clap. Then I hear a whole bunch of
They was making so much noise by clapping and
hollering and whistling that the correction office got angry with them
and told them to shut up, to be quiet. Then stop talking, making noise,
hollering and whistling to a leave that place.
They was real
glad to see me go. So now, I'm in the door that will lead me to freedom
and when they opened that door, this is what I saw: I saw a whole bunch
of reporters. CNN, ABC, the Association of Press, everybody was in
there. And no offense, but reporters sometimes make some silly
The first one was: "How do
you feel?" [laughter] I told them how I feel. I feel happy. I'm going
home. So here come this other reporter, this female reporter, with some
more crazy questions. She told me, "Where are you going? What you going
to do? What are you going to see?"
I did not told her that I
wanted to Disney World. [laughter] I told her, and it came naturally,
it came from my heart. I told her I wanted to see the moon. I wanted to
see the stars. I want to walk on grass, on dirt. I want to hold a
little baby in my arm and play with him. Of course, I told her I wanted
to talk to some beautiful women.
reporter I had in front of me. She was ugly. But that's a joke. I
missed the things that we take for granted, the simple things in life.
I cannot understand the people in the free world that when they tell me
they are bored, when so many good things that God create for us that we
can enjoy, take care and love.
When there are so many good
things and good choices we can make in life. And thinking about good
deeds and good choices, I have to tell you this. This is what I see in
here. I see great prosecutors. I see great law enforcement officers. I
see great lawyers, they deserve everything. Good people.
problem with the death penalty is this, it's all about the tales. It's
all about the education. And we need you to get involved. People need
to know that it does not deter crime. People need to know that it costs
too much. People need to know that it's racist. People need to know
that the as long as the United States have in any country that have it,
you always will be a risk to execute an innocent one.
see, you always can release an innocent man from prison, but you can
never and I repeat, you can never release an innocent man from the
So God bless you and peace and love to you all.