Juan Melendez: Innocent on Death Row
Juan Melendez, spent nearly 18 years on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. In 2002 he became the 99th U.S. inmate to be released from death row. Juan will share his story, experiences, and uniquely familiar views on the death penalty. He will also discuss why his story is not rare, the problems he sees with the death penalty system.
Juan Melendez, spent nearly 18 years on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. Juan is now an advocate for abolition of the death penalty.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh your listening to these days on K P B S earlier week we talked on this program about the death penalty as an abstract we heard from death penalty means to our system of justice to the victims of crime and society at large today we'll be talking about the death penalty as it applies to the life of one man Juan Melendez [CHECK] 17 years on death row since his release his personal story as cautionary tale against the death penalty. I'd like to welcome Juan Melendez to These Days. Good morning Juan.
MELENDEZ: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now I'd like to start out with you telling us what you wept to prison for and what that process was like you were tried and convicted of murder.
MELENDEZ: Everybody's convicted degree murder on death row. [CHECK} first degree murder and armed robbery it was based [CHECK] no physical evidence against me witness with from cost to cost the main deal with a [CHECK] and with the state on crimes to commit.
CAVANAUGH: And as you say you spent 17 years on death row I'm going to talk all about how were you were ultimately released from [CHECK] I think for the people who are listening it might bee good if you could tell us a little bit about what being in prison on death row is like.
MELENDEZ: It's a horrifying experience it's just like like a nightmare that you cannot wake up, they cope me in a six by nine foot cell. The place where I was was infected with rats and roaches and every time they move me out of the place for what ever reason I had land cuffs on my wrist chains on my legs [CHECK] my family also suffered a lot. My mom and my five aunts. I remember a letter that my mama wrote me [CHECK] and she pray for a miracle and I really notice how much she suffer. I get out and went to her home I notice she had tears running down her checks. I say momma what's wrong she said on despite of all this faith and I was saving money to bring your dead body back to the island in Puerto Rico. And no mother in this word should go through that that pain.
CAVANAUGH: Now you were on death row separated from the rest of the prison population we think of people in prison they get to go outside and work out and they get to eat in a commissary. You don't get that on death row do you?
MELENDEZ: No we use to go to the recreation yard which is not that much four hours a week. Two hours on Monday two hours on Wednesday if it don't rain. All they have to do is so a cloud in the sky and they say inclement weather [CHECK] the most that I suffered was when they execute someone. I'm in this sell. Next to me is another person that I know for 10 or 15 years he cries on my shoulder I cries on his he share with me his intimate thoughts I share mine with him and grow to love him and one day they snatch him out of the sell I know what's going happen their going to kill him.[CHECK] the electric chair they [CHECK] the chair because it two thousand 10 bolts of electricity. I can hear this buzzing sound. And know precisely the time when they burn the life out of him because the lights go on and off this no movie. This the real stuff but the most sad part about it; is that some them are innocent like [CHECK] and my home boy from Puerto Rico the state of Florida offered him on a plea bargain five years he didn't take it because he didn't commit the crime he spent 17 years [CHECK]
CAVANAUGH: Years on Florida's death row and now he's a free man since his release in 2002 during those years you appealed your conviction it wept all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court.
MELENDEZ: My case was heard three times [CHECK] I'm a very lucky man if I would are been in the state of Texas or Ohio, Virginia I wouldn't be alive today speaking to you.
CAVANAUGH: Because it was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court.
MELENDEZ: Three times.
CAVANAUGH: Three times. It now your case ultimately got a hearing before the judge looked at it evidence that the prosecution did not give to the defense including a confession by another man and said you know this conviction can't hold and the prosecutor decided no they don't have enough evidence to retry you and you walked out of prison. Can you even explain what that felt like.
MELENDEZ: To me it was ‑‑ I don't know if you watch cartoons. So this cartoon character he hits other one upside the head with sledge hammer then you see it like stars around his head. His in state of shock but he's smiling that's how I was. Still smiling today.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. And of course you've made it your mission now to Two around and penalty in the united states. You have a documentary about your story Juan Melendez 6446.
MELENDEZ: The documentary shown the pain of the lawyers when they got to ‑‑ when they lose a client to death it show the pains of the families of the death row prisoner [CHECK] that don't believe in the death penalty also the documentary show how reporters feel when they interview somebody that's going to be executed so it's good ‑‑ also show ‑‑ that they [CHECK] let people know that the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary it let people know that it's racist it let people know that it cost too much [CHECK] in the state of California that the state of California can save a year, every year a hundred and 14 million dollars every year they can save that money and that money can be used to [CHECK] can be used to give equipment to police officers better equipment better training so they can get the right one because every time they get the wrong one on death row what you think the real murder is doing more murders more murders so we are to help the police officer finance them with more money and better equipment so they can get the right one.
CAVANAUGH: As I say earlier this week we ran a program on that had a lot of people talking about the death penalty and at least some of the people who were on our show felt very strongly. We need to have a death penalty in this country and for various reasons victims rights rights et cetera, et cetera. If you could take the [CHECK] out of it in other words the man who confessed to killing that man that you were convicted of if he were alive would you support of him being sentenced to death.
MELENDEZ: No, No. I think[CHECK] the problem with the death penalty people need to know that it's a human being and carried out by human beings and we all know we humans make mistakes you can sentence to person to life in prison are without parole 12 years later you find out that you that he did not commit the crime you can give him his life back but you can never I repeat you can never get the life back of innocent person from the grave so we got to get kid of it and trying be this serial killers Ted Bundy, Saddam Hussein ‑‑ in that net innocent people get caught up in it and that's why we got to abolish it. We got better ways [CHECK] we in the company of China, Pakistan [CHECK]when we do these things.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Juan Melendez who's released from the days death row and he is the subject of [CHECK] documentary Juan Melendez six four four six I guess I'm trying to get to real nub of this. Someone was murdered and you saw who did it. And that was the person who was tried and convicted of the crime, would you support that person being executed?
MELENDEZ: No I don't. Because we got alternatives we have ‑‑ you can sentence a person with life without parole we don't need to kill we don't need to put our self on the same level as killer.
CAVANAUGH: Now the state of Illinois recently got kid of ‑‑ the governor basically said what your saying there's no wav we can do this without making mistakes do you think that's going to encourage other states take a look at capitol punishment.
MELENDEZ: Well the death penalty [CHECK] and just hope I live to see it the death penalty will fall like a domino [CHECK] new Mexico a check so it will fall like a domino chain it's a few states that like the state of Connecticut can[ CHECK] of Colorado and may be Montana so it's going to happen what we have to think about is the time when is it going to happen how many innocent people going to bee executed many [CHECK] after spending so many years I spend 17 years ‑‑ I spend 17 years eight months and one day almost 18 years in death row [CHECK] if I would have been in Texas in Virginia, Ohio I would not be here to talk to you.
CAVANAUGH: Lots of time with public opinion people support more often then not you get a hot of people that say yes.
MELENDEZ: Yes but if you give them alternatives life without parole and pay restitution to the families for murder you will see a 60 five percent [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: Yet there are those people, an eye for an eye.
MELENDEZ: There are people who you can never reach there are people you can never reach I'll tell you the truth, I have talked people that believed in the death penalty they believe in the death penalty in theory but they do not believe in the death penalty in practice because it's a bad government policy it's not it dont resolve no problems in crime and we can use all this money that we spend in the death penalty on public safety.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask about you. You've been home almost 10 years right.
CAVANAUGH: This is your cause now to advocate against the death penalty.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of reaction do you get.
MELENDEZ: It's a very very positive reaction people get motivated people want to get involved like and say the problem with the death penalty in United states said it's about details people need to learn that the death penalty is is a bad government policy that don't resolve no problem society and it cost too much and we can use that money for better things.
CAVANAUGH: And when you think about those 17 years of your life those years of your life that was spent in prison on death row do you I under if doing this work brings gives some [CHECK] to that loss that you suffered?
MELENDEZ: Oh yes every time I go to high school. Kid's in nine grade I see this same kid in a university and he tells me that he wants to become a lawyer because of of my story it makes me feel good.
CAVANAUGH: You were the 99th person who was released from death row after being found innocent of the crime that you were convicted of that's a statistic that really shakes up a lot of people .
MELENDEZ: It gets worse it's a hundred and 38 of us it's one thousand two hundred and forty three people already executed only God knows how many of them did not have the luck that and had and the rest of the hundred 30 seven.
CAVANAUGH: People used do say the risk of someone who was innocent actually ending up on death row was very very rare he but that's not the case any more is it?
CAVANAUGH: Where are you going from here Juan.
MELENDEZ: I will speak to colleges and forgive me I forgot the name of it college.
CAVANAUGH: You've been to so many right.
CAVANAUGH: I know that your going to Anaheim.
MELENDEZ: Yeah going to Anaheim and I'm going a [CHECK] I leave California Monday.
CAVANAUGH: You just headed off across the country on your mission.
MELENDEZ: I go to New Mexico.[CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: Thank you it sharing your story.
MELENDEZ: Thank you so much I hope the people of California will realize that the death penalty is it with is a bad government policy we got to get rid of it and let's use the money that's use to on the death penalty it pub heck safety.
CAVANAUGH: I want every one to know that that documentary is being presented at international [CHECK] Juan Melendez 6446. Thanks again.
MELENDEZ: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Stay with us for hour two of these days here on KPBS.