2019 marks 10 years for Voice of Witness as a nonprofit, and in celebration of this exciting milestone, we’re resurfacing powerful stories from every book in our oral history book series. Though time has passed since these stories were first published, many of the themes and issues they address are as relevant and important as ever.
The following is an excerpt of Juan Melendez’s story from our very first oral history book, Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, published in 2005. Surviving Justice began as a project at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where students collected the stories of individuals who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
The thirteen stories in this book highlight different aspects of wrongful conviction—witness misidentification, forced confession, the preservation of biological evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and so on. They reveal the manner in which confessions are obtained and the vulnerabilities that prompt some persons to confess falsely; the reliability of eyewitnesses; the way investigators sometimes predetermine who committed a crime; the occasional inadequacy of appointed counsel; the overreaching zeal of some prosecutors; and, of course, the pervasive and distorting effects of race.
Many Americans have a general faith in the soundness of their justice system, but those inside the system feel differently. In these narratives, it becomes clear that wrongful conviction can and does happen to virtually anyone. Until stories like these are widely known and from them lessons learned, it will continue to happen to anyone.
Juan Melendez was born in Brooklyn in 1951, but fled to Puerto Rico when he was eight years old to escape an abusive stepfather. At seventeen, he moved to Delaware, where he got a job harvesting vegetables, picking fruit, and pruning trees. After several years, several barroom brawls, and frequent run-ins with the police, he quit his job and hustled on the streets. In 1975 he was arrested in Florida and sentenced to ten years for an armed robbery. Following an early release from prison in 1982, he was arrested again in 1984 for a murder and armed robbery he did not commit, and sentenced to death. 17 years into his sentence, a confession from the real killer was discovered and Melendez was exonerated.
THEY WAS KILLING PEOPLE IN FLORIDA LEFT AND RIGHT
I believe my mama suffered more than I did. I got all the letters. Still got ’em, but this particular one, I keep it with me all the time because if I’m down or if I need a little energy I can grab that letter and read it and it picks me up.
The letter go like this: she say, “Son, I just build an altar, and in that altar I put a statue of the Virgin of the Guadalupe. I cut roses and put them in it. I pray five or six rosaries a day, seeking for a miracle. And the miracle will come. I know you innocent and God know you innocent. But you got to put your trust in God. You got to put your faith in God. Be good. Keep thinking that you gonna make it. And you will.”
Well, sometimes when you get an appeal and you lose your appeal, all your hope is gone.
So you do like a little kid. When a little kid is trying to learn to walk, he falls, and when he falls he cries and he’s mad, but then he gets up and he try to walk again. That’s what I did.
“Well, sometimes when you get an appeal and you lose your appeal, all your hope is gone.“
I’m probably the luckiest man in the world. I should have been dead, ’cause they was killing people in Florida left and right. In fact, they never signed my death warrant, which is real strange ’cause I seen a lot of people in there that came after me—they signed their death warrants and killed them. That’s when I was worrying about it, when they was killing the ones that came after me.
One day I remember my lawyer came to see me. She had tears in her eyes and she tells me that she no longer can handle my case. I say, “Why? I don’t need no new lawyers in the stage where my case is now, you know my case better than anybody.”
And she say, “You know why. I lost five clients.” And you know what I mean when she say she lost five clients: she means five clients got executed.
She say, “You know all of them, they’re your friends, I cannot do it no more. But I’m gonna talk to the agency and get the agency to assign the best three lawyers they got. And the best investigator.”
I finally got the dream team.
Here comes my new lawyer that’s been assigned to me. He say, “Melendez, you done lost too many appeals.”
The truth is, when you lose appeals, you getting closer and closer to death. You become what they call a great candidate for the governor to sign your death warrant. And I’m already in that stage.
He say, “We’re gonna try one more time, but if you lose this one, you’ll be lucky if you live three years.”
I say, “If I lose this one I be lucky if I live a year and a half. You know who the governor of Florida is? His name is Jeb Bush, he be glad to sign the death warrant.”
He said, “I’m gonna try one more time. I’m gonna send an investigator to go and see your trial defense attorney”—the one that used to pat me on the back—“to see if he have any files of your case left. To see if we missed something.”