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Free from fear

Former convict speaks about his experience on death row

Former death row inmate Juan Melendez Jr. said Tuesday that he was not saved by the system, but something else altogether.

"The system wanted to kill me," he said. "I was saved by the grace of God."

Melendez, who spoke during a senior seminar course in Mitchell Hall, said a man living under the constant threat of death who does not grab something spiritual will either go crazy or kill himself.

He said he spent 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. Melendez was convicted of murder and armed robbery in 1984 and was not released until 2002.

A migrant worker from Puerto Rico who didn't speak English and was illiterate, Melendez said he was arrested during a fruit-picking job and taken to Florida where he stood trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.

"Since I didn't do it, I thought as soon as they saw my ugly face in Florida, they'd let me go," he said. "How wrong I was."

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Melendez said the jury consisted of 11 Caucasians and one African American, and the prosecution presented a police informant who said Melendez had confessed to him that he had committed the crime. His only witness, he added, was a man who had made a plea bargain with the prosecution and said he had picked up Melendez, taken him to the scene of the crime and then left.

After he was convicted and taken to prison, Melendez said a man was executed the same day he arrived at the prison. Because of that, he said he believed inmates were killed every day, leaving him in perpetual fear each time anyone would come to his cell door.

Melendez said the fear and the conditions on death row were so bad, after 10 years of incarceration, he decided to kill himself. He said he paid four stamps to a runner - an inmate who can provide supplies like cigarettes and toothpaste - for a plastic bag.

He said inmates make the bag into a rope they use to hang themselves.

"When they wheeled the body out, they never took the noose off," he said.

Melendez said before he attempted to kill himself, he went to sleep and had a strange dream where he was swimming as a child in the ocean in Puerto Rico and two dolphins came up on either side of him. Then, he said, he looked to the shore and saw his mother waving to him, smiling at him because he was happy.

"I woke up and threw away the rope," he said. "It was like God was telling me to hang in there."

Melendez said he was lucky, and he encouraged students to fight against capital punishment.

"When they kill in this state, in any other state, they are killing in your name," he said.

Melendez was the 99th man to be exonerated from death row in the country after being cleared by new evidence. New Mexico is one of 38 states that have the death penalty.


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