When freed after 17 years, the state of Florida didn't apologize to him, they just gave him "$100, a pair of pants and a shirt."
By Iņaki Estivaliz
SAN JUAN -- Puerto Rican Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years eight months and one day behind bars awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit, told Efe about life on death row at the state prison in Starke, Florida.
Melendez, who entered the prison in 1984 and was released on Jan. 3, 2002, said he survived because of the fraternal love among the inmates, who offer one another "a shoulder to cry on."
But "the worst thing about being inside is when they execute someone who you've been with for so many years and who's become a relative. First, you feel the buzzing when they turn on the electricity in the electric chair and you know the precise moment of execution because the lights go out and flicker."
Also, you miss your family, "especially around Christmas a person needs family warmth more," recalled the 57-year-old Melendez, who upon being convicted broke off his relationship with his girlfriend by whom he had three daughters "so that they would not go through that suffering."
Melendez reunited with his daughters "when they were grown up and didn't know what had happened," and then he got to know his six grandchildren. Now he lives in New Mexico devoting his time and effort to giving talks against the death penalty.
During his stay on death row, prison authorities let him go out into the prison yard four hours a week "if it wasn't raining, but (the guards) didn't need a pretext not to take us out and if there was a little cloud in the sky we didn't go out at all."
Inside, "you communicate by sticking your arms out of the bars with a mirror. I didn't know how to write or speak English. (The other prisoners) taught me. I also learned about the laws."
He played chess with another death row inmate "without seeing each other's faces. To move the pieces, we exchanged the numbers of the (squares) on the board."
Melendez found guilty of murdering a businessman on the basis of the testimony of two alleged witnesses. "Everything was a just a lot of talk. They gave one of them a $5,000 reward and the other negotiated two years of probation."
One of the witnesses died and the other, Melendez said, changed his testimony 16 years after the sentence, saying "that the police forced him" to testify against him.
Finally, "after so many years, a video turned up of the real (killer) confessing" and another trial was convened but it was never held because the prosecutors did not file any charges, something he called "a miracle."
"(Then-Gov.) Jeb Bush was the one who was going to execute me," said Melendez, and when he attained his freedom, the state of Florida "didn't apologize to me," they just gave him "$100, a pair of pants and a shirt."
The Civil Rights Commission and the Puerto Rico bar association on Wednesday evening in San Juan will present a documentary about Melendez's life in prison and his legal battle to regain his freedom as part of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Melendez said that during his stay on death row, he knew at least five other prisoners awaiting execution who were also innocent. "I studied their cases and there was evidence" of their innocence, he said, adding that capital punishment is not the solution to serious crimes because "there are alternatives," such as being sentenced to life in prison.
"When they take away a person's freedom, they're taking away your life. Prison is no party, you don't have to kill him. Besides, the person can change in prison over the years and end up being someone else. However, the death penalty doesn't settle anything," Melendez insisted.
Regarding Puerto Rico, "which received me like a hero," Melendez said he felt proud because the island's people have always been against accepting the death penalty and its constitution prohibits that form of punishment, but the island's status as a U.S. commonwealth subordinates it in the final analysis to U.S. justice.
"The federal government should respect the constitution of Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico don't want the death penalty but the federal government tries to push it on them," he said.
"For me this is really personal. Seeing that there are people who haven't (experienced) what happened to me, but who are fighting against the death penalty makes me feel really proud," Melendez said. EFE