Melendez was 32 years old when he was accused of murdering Delbert Baker on Sept. 13, 1983. Baker was the owner of a beauty school in Auburndale, Fla., had been shot three times, and his throat was slashed. Baker had been robbed of cash and the jewelry he was wearing. Melendez was fingered by a police snitch—David Luna Falcon, someone who himself faced murder charges and bartered for freedom to accuse Melendez.
When he was released from death row, the state of Florida gave Melendez $100, a pair of pants and a T-shirt. Melendez is traveling around the country for Witness to Innocence, an organization of and for exonerated death row survivors and their families working to end the dealth penalty. Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty is sponsoring his stop in Tucson. He'll be speaking at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law on Monday, April 19, at 12:15 p.m., Room 156 (pizza will be served at noon), at Speedway Boulevard and Mountain Avenue.
The Range talked to Melendez while he was waiting in the San Francisco International Airport getting ready fly out for another speaking engagement:
When were you released?
I was released Thursday, Jan. 3, 2002, and I’ve been doing this since I’ve been out.
Why speak to people about the death penalty?
I think it’s a duty for me to do it. I spent 17 years and one day for a crime I did not commit in the state of Florida. When I went in the worst of the worse taught me to read, to write and to speak English. I wanted to give back in their honor.
Is your goal to get rid of the death penalty?
To give people more information so they can make up their own minds. It don’t deter crime, don’t protect our community. It is cruel and unnecessary, and costs too much. Any nation that has it is always at risk to execute an innocent one.
The day they released you, did you know at first what was going on?
No, I did not know. They took me to a room across from death row with handcuffs on my wrists and chains on my legs. A woman behind a desk started asking me questions. Silly questions. My Social Security number. Who I worked with. I told her, "You don't understand, they don't have no jobs on death row." She looked at me and said, "Melendez, you have no idea what's going on here. They are going to release you today.'" I felt like a cartoon character that's been hit with a hammer, and star going around his head. I was in a state of shock, but smiling, and I'm still smiling today.
Do you think when you speak to people about your experience that it does actually change their opinion on the death penalty?
I really don’t try. When I do my events and when I speak, I do not try to change people minds, I tell them a story and what happen to me, and that it could happen to everybody, and I just want them to think. If you believe in it, then you need to get all the facts. People believe it costs more to keep them alive from prison, but it costs more to execute them. It cost $1 million to get rid of Ted Bundy. That kind of money can be used to provide better equipment for law enforcement officers and council victim families.
Why were you convicted?
In my case the court allowed the testimony of two questionable witnesses. One claimed I confessed the crime to him. It was time to make a deal; he made one with the state. These were two witnesses with a criminal record coast to coast. My trial started on a Monday. There was no physical evidence linking me to the case. By Friday, the judge sentenced me to death.
While you were in prison, did you have support on the outside?
My family was behind me. My mom and my five aunts, they stuck with me for years. My aunts wrote me for years. And what you’d call activists against the death penalty (were) working hard to get me out. However, I’m a very lucky man. ... If I had been in Texas or Idaho, I would not be talking to your right now. You can release an innocent man from jail, but you can never release an innocent man from the grave.
What was the hardest part of being in prison?
The hardest part for me was when they would execute someone. When I'd share a cell with another person; I'd grow to learn to love him, and then one day, they'd snatch him from the cell. I can hear the sound of the electricity still in my mind. I'd know precisely the time they were electrocuted, because the lights would go on and off.
Is your mom still alive?
Still alive, and 80 years old. I'll see her for Mother’s Day. She's still strong, and she treats me like a little kid, and I love every bit of it.