Juan Melendez, who was exonerated after almost 18 years on death row, discussed his opinion on capital punishment with Emory students in an event dedicated to infamous Atlanta death row inmate Troy Davis.
This speech was a part of a week-long series of events sponsored by Amnesty International, an organization that strives to recognize and protect human rights worldwide. Events that aim to raise awareness and ask critical questions about the death penalty and criminal justice are taking place throughout the general Atlanta area.
The event was organized by the Criminal Law Society (CLS), a new student organization at the Emory School of Law, and focused on Melendez’s experience with the justice system. The teach-in, according to CLS, aimed to help students understand the importance of Davis’ case, to educate the community about flaws in the justice system and to discuss racism in the society and the legal system.
Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. Despite increasing evidence of his innocence, he remains on death row, where he has been for more than 18 years. Like Davis, Melendez was convicted of a crime he maintained innocence for.
“I’ll never forget this day. It was a beautiful day,” Melendez said of the day he was arrested for the murder of Delbert Baker in Florida.
He and his co-workers were eating lunch outdoors when seven police cars drove up. The police, he said, came out with guns in their hands, shouting his name.
“I was scared. They asked to see my tattoo, I showed it to them. They asked me to open my mouth to check for my missing tooth, I showed it to them. Then they told me I was the man they were looking for and slapped some handcuffs on me,” he said.
According to Melendez, it took less than a week for the jury to sentence him to death.
“Monday, they started picking the jury. Tuesday, they were still picking. On Wednesday, the evidence came in,” he said.
The evidence came from David Luna Falcon, who claimed that Melendez had confessed the crime to him, Melendez said.
On Thursday, he was found guilty of the murder, and on Friday, he was sentenced to death.
“It’s very easy to convince all the people sitting in the jury with this much evidence,” Melendez said, sticking his fingers out and pinching the air to indicate the amount of evidence the jury had against him. “I hated the prosecutors, I hated the jury and I hated my lawyer, the guy who patted me on the back and used to tell me, ‘You are going home.’”
The process through which he and other defendants end up on death row is not just, Melendez said. The jury, which consisted of 11 white jurors and one black juror, was pressured to convict him of the crime, he added.
As the trial began, the jury was shown pictures of the crime scene and Baker’s body, which had been shot three times and slashed at the throat.
“As soon as [the jurors] saw the pictures, they looked up at me with hate in their eyes,” Melendez said. “The pictures were horrifying and gruesome. They used the pictures to infuriate the jurors, and it worked — they got angry at me.”
The first vote amongst the jurors was divided equally, Melendez said. The second vote yielded an 11-to-1 response. The only juror who maintained that Melendez was not guilty, he said, was “a little old lady.”
“They jury was mad at her. ‘How do you not find him guilty?’ they asked her,” Melendez recalled. “She told them that she couldn’t believe a good-looking man could have done it.”
The lady was then shown a photograph of Melendez from 1975, he said.
“I had the biggest afro in town,” Melendez exclaimed. “I was on drugs, so my eyes looked like 50-cent coins.”
After seeing the photograph, Melendez said the lady changed her vote.
“What the hell does my afro have anything to do with this?” he asked.
It’s the nature of the crime that makes it so easy for innocent people to be convicted, Melendez said. He said the public is easily angered by gruesome crimes and are quick to convict others, and when the police begin to lean towards a suspect, people tend to believe them.
His jail cell was infested with rats and roaches, and he said that mealtimes were among some of the worst times of the day.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love grease and eggs for breakfast,” Melendez said. “But they send [the meal] through a slot, and if you don’t pick it up in five seconds, the roaches will beat you to it; they’ve been waiting for their meal, too.”
It was a guessing game to wonder how long it would be before he would be killed, Melendez said. He said that the first time he felt like a human being on death row was when a fellow inmate began to teach him English.
“I didn’t know how to write, how to speak, how to read English,” he said.
Most of the people on death row were uneducated and poor and many had also been raped by a close relative or had undergone a similar experience, Melendez said. He said that in many cases, inmates did not know what forms they had signed during the trial process because they could not understand them.
Being on death row was like being among the “living dead,” Melendez said. Many of the inmates resorted to suicide and would exchange cheap cigarettes or stamps with the cleaning crew for garbage bags to tie into nooses, he said.
“These cheap items are worth more to the [cleaning crew] than an inmate’s life,” Melendez said. “I would hear people killing themselves, I would see the body rolled out. They’re dead, but they’re free.”
Suicide began to feel like the only way out, Melendez said. He said that he was able to get a garbage bag and make a noose, but that he hesitated before he hanged himself. Instead, he sat down to rethink his choice, and fell asleep.
Melendez said that he dreamed of being a little kid again, doing things he loved doing in his childhood. He said that his dream shifted, and suddenly he was at the most beautiful beach he had ever seen. Melendez said he woke up happy, flushed his makeshift noose down the toilet and whenever he felt depressed, prayed to God for another beautiful dream.
Relatives did not stay in contact with Melendez while he was on death row, he said. His mother and five aunts were the only relatives who wrote frequently to him. He said that they sent letters and pictures often, but despite their words of encouragement and faith, even they were expecting his death.
“Momma was saving money to bring my body back,” Melendez said.
While Melendez was on death row, Florida was still using the electric chair. The sound of the chair could be heard from his cell, and as he imitated the noise for the audience, Melendez said that he would remember it forever.
Many of the inmates who lost their lives in that chair did not deserve to die, Melendez argued. He listed the names of some whom he called his “homeboys,” whom he claimed were innocent.
Melendez was eventually released after serving 17 years, eight months and one day of hard time on death row. He had a new lawyer, who had found that his old lawyer, “the one who used to pat [him] on the back,” had kept a tape and transcript on which the real killer, Vernon James, confessed to committing the murder. James was also a police informant, Melendez said.
With ankles shackled, waist in chains and wrists in handcuffs, Melendez was taken to a different room the day of his release.
“This lady kept asking me silly questions. She asked me for my social security number and asked where I work. I said, ‘Lady, I’ve been on death row for 18 years, they don’t got jobs on death row,’” he recounted.
Only then did he find out he was going home, Melendez said.
As compensation, he said he was given only $100, a pair of pants and a T-shirt.
He said he still has not received a formal apology from the state of Florida.
The experience has shown him the injustice of the justice system, he said.
“This is the problem with death penalty cases,” he explained. “What was on my mind was, ‘They’re not going to convict me.’ I thought they would find the killer.”
He said that there are too many flaws in the system.
The process, he said, is more expensive than most can afford, appeals are not easy to make and race plays too much of a role in these cases.
“If you look at death penalty cases, you will see most are white jurors,” Melendez said, and added that white jurors are more likely to support the death penalty than people of other races.
Statistics from Amnesty International show that 41.6 percent of inmates on death row are black, 11 percent Hispanic, 45 percent white and 2.3 percent of other ethnic backgrounds.
Through a general vote, students at the event were divided between whether or not these results were surprising. Many did not expect to see whites as the majority of people on death row, but just as many felt like it made sense, because 74 percent of the United States population consists of white Americans.
There was a general consensus among students that abolishing the death penalty would solve the problems in the current legal system.
“I have a confession to make — I’m still a dreamer,” Melendez said. “I dream that one day I will see the death penalty abolished.”
He said that people need to realize the death penalty risks killing innocent men and women.
“You can always release an innocent man from prison,” Melendez said, “but you can never release an innocent man from the grave.”
— Contact Alice Chen