By Nora Casey, Chicago Maroon, Student Newspaper at University of Chicago
Juan Melendez spent almost 18 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, until his eventual exoneration in 2002. Now he speaks at schools and forums across the country, urging his audience to fight the death penalty.
On October 4, Melendez spoke to 20 students and staff at an event organized through the University chapter of Amnesty International, a group that protects human rights and is opposed to the death penalty.
Melendez, an American citizen, was raised in Puerto Rico but moved back to the United States to work as a migrant farmer. He was arrested on May 2, 1984 and charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery in Florida. He was appointed a public defender, but spoke almost no English.
There was no physical evidence against him, just the testimony of two “questionable witnesses,” said Melendez. He had four alibi witnesses, all of whom were black. He felt that their and his own race were held against him.
The trial began on a Monday. He was convicted on Thursday and sentenced to death the next day.
“Death row is hell,” Melendez said. In prison, he said, he was surrounded by cockroaches and rats. Many of his friends and fellow inmates committed suicide, and those who got sick were poorly cared for and often died. But Melendez says that “the worst of all is when the government kills.”
With the help of other inmates, Melendez learned to read, write, and speak English, which allowed him to communicate better with his lawyer. Sixteen years after Melendez’s conviction, his new lawyer discovered a tape of the confession of the actual killer, and Melendez was released. He was the 99th person in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row.
He feels for the friends that he left behind in prison.
“Believe me, some of them are innocent…and I still can’t stop [their deaths],” he said. “I dream and I pray to God that in my time I can see the death penalty abolished.”
Many of the students in attendance were moved by Melendez’s story.
“I thought it was really powerful and I give Mr. Melendez a lot of praise for being able to share,” said U of C Amnesty International co-chair Monica Maalouf.