A death row exoneree and speaker from Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit organization against capital punishment, was hosted by the University of New Mexico Lobo Reading Experience in the Student Union Building Theatre on Sept. 19.
Scores of UNM students listened to Juan Melendez — an exonerated Florida death row inmate who was wrongfully convicted — share his experience.
“When they put me in death row for 17 years, eight months and one day, the world stopped,” Melendez said.
His experience began in 1984 when he was arrested and charged with first degree murder and robbery. Melendez was sentenced to death two days after his trial began.
“When they sentenced me to death, my heart got full of hate,” Melendez said. “I hated the jurors, I hated the judge, I hated the prosecutor and I hated the one that pat me on the back — my trial defense lawyer — because I felt he betrayed me.”
Melendez said he was then taken to his cell on death row — a six-by-nine room — where he was handcuffed and had chains on his waist.
“The place was also (infested) with rats and roaches,” he said.
Melendez said when he started his prison sentence, the state of Florida had executed 10 people, and by the time he left in 2002, 51 people had been executed.
While on death row, Melendez said he learned to read, write and speak English during tutoring sessions with other inmates.
“If they never taught me, I would have never survived that place,” he said.
Melendez said death was all around him, but sometimes it was not from the executioner flipping the switch.
“I never saw my friends kill themselves because I can’t see through walls, but I see them wheel the body out,” Melendez said, recalling seeing their blue and black faces.
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He said he wanted out. After ten years of being on death row, he said he began getting depressed and thought about taking his own life, but something stopped him.
Before he was going to hang himself, he said he entered a deep sleep and dreamt of times when he was a kid, he dreamt of “things that made (him) smile — happy.”
“There is a beautiful woman waving at me, smiling at me, throwing kisses at me and she looks so happy — she’s happy because I’m happy,” Melendez said. “That’s my dear mother.”
Every time Melendez would get depressed and think about suicide, he said he would be gifted a dream that would give him the will to live. He said he was never forgotten by his family and received “lots and lots of letters” that helped him persevere.
Melendez said he and others around him found religion in prison — it was a chance for him to reconnect with himself.
“We were serving the same god with different names,” he said. “All we have to do is make good choices in life — do good things and we’ll have no problem going to heaven.”
For Melendez, he said he knew one man on death row for about 15 years.
“He cried in my shoulders, I cried in his. He shared with me his most intimate thoughts and I shared mine with him,” Melendez said. “I learned slowly to grow to love him.”
However, Melendez’s friendship with his cell neighbor came to an end.
“I know exactly the precise time when they burn the life on him because the lights flicker on and off,” he said.
Eventually, Melendez was exonerated on January 3, 2002. One year after his conviction, the real killer had confessed to the crime, but the confession was hidden amongst other pieces of evidence. 16 years later his new defense attorney found it and cleared his name.
“We can always release an innocent man from prison, but we can never release an innocent man from the grave,” Melendez said.
Matthew Goldman, a sophomore majoring in statistics, attended the talk. He said it was an amazing event compared to reading Melendez’s story.
“I didn’t expect it to be as straightforward and blunt,” Goldman said.
Goldman said he hopes that students who attended will walk away with one thing in mind.
“Compassion toward people who (have) family in the system, that even though it’s not all they do and often times people are innocent in these prisons because they can’t afford a lawyer to prove their innocence,” he said.
In 2009, the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty. However, two men convicted of murder, among additional charges, are still on death row in the state. In April of 2018, it was reported that their cases went before New Mexico’s Supreme Court. Their fate is still yet to be determined.
Anthony Jackson is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TonyAnjackson.