Juan Melendez, an innocent man who spent 17 years, eight months and one day on death row in Florida for a crime he did not commit will be one of the speakers at the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break, which is March 15-19, 2010 in Austin, Texas. Juan is attending as a member of Witness to Innocence. Juan will join exonerees Shujaa Graham, Curtis McCarty, Ron Keine, Derrick Jamison and Perry Cobb at alternative spring break to speak with participants about how innocent people can end up on death row. Altogether, the six exonerees attending the alternative spring break spent a total of about 65 years on death row for crimes they did not commit.
The Anti-DeathPenalty Alternative Spring Break March 15-19 in Austin is designed for high school and college students interested in human rights and thedeathpenalty. All the events are also open to people of all ages who are interested in the issue. In addition to five death row exonerees, there will be many other interesting speakers, includingthe national director of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, Bill Pelke of Journey of Hope, Susannah Sheffer of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, Brian Evans from the Washington D.C. office of Amnesty International, and Elizabeth Gilbert, the friend of Todd Willingham who first brought his case to the attention of thefire expert who later sent a report to Rick Perry in support of a stay of execution.
Participants will gain valuable training and experience in grassroots organizing, lobbying, preparing a public rally and working with the media. During the week, students will immediately put what they learn into action during activities such as an Anti-DeathPenalty Lobby Day with a rally at theTexas Capitol. There will be opportunities to write press releases, organize a press conference, speak in public, meet with legislators or their aides, and carry out a public rally at the capitol.
Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break is a program of Students Against the Death Penalty. Co-organizers include Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Campaign to End the Death Penalty - Austin Chapter, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Texans Against the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Witness to Innocence and Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing.
Raised in Puerto Rico, Juan Melendez was working in Polk County as a fruit picker before he was sentenced to death in 1984 for the 1983 killing of an Auburndale beauty salon owner named Delbert Baker. A police informant implicated Melendez and another man. The second man cut a deal with prosecutors and testified against Melendez, but 12 years later, he recanted, saying he was coerced.
Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon spent seventeen years, eight months and one day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Upon his exoneration and release from death row on January 3, 2002, he became the 99th death row inmate in the country to be exonerated and released since 1973. There was no physical evidence ever linking Juan Melendez to the crime and his conviction and death sentence hinged on the testimony of two questionable witnesses. Despite his innocence, Juan Melendez’s conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal three times by the Florida Supreme Court. In September of 2000, sixteen years after Juan Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped confession by the real killer, was fortuitously discovered. Ultimately, it came to light that the real killer made statements to no less than sixteen individuals either directly confessing to the murder or stating that Juan Melendez was not involved. In a seventy-two page opinion in which she overturned Juan Melendez’s conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, Judge Barbara Fleischer went to tremendous lengths to underscore the injustices that had been bestowed upon Juan Melendez and to show that an innocent man was on death row. She chastised the prosecutor for withholding “crucial” evidence pertaining to the credibility of the State’s two critical witnesses and she set forth in meticulous detail the “newly discovered evidence,” including numerous confessions and incriminating statements made by the real killer to friends, law enforcement officers, investigators and attorneys that substantiated the defense theory that Juan Melendez was innocent. Without admitting any wrongdoing, the State of Florida declined to pursue a new trial against Juan Melendez because one of its key witnesses had recanted and the other had died.
Upon his release from death row, without bitterness, anger or hatred towards those responsible for wrongfully convicting and sentencing him to death, Juan Melendez has traveled throughout the United States speaking to audiences about his story of supreme injustice. When he is not speaking throughout the country or abroad, he works at home in Puerto Rico in a plantain field where he counsels troubled youth who work alongside him. As a former migrant farm worker, Juan Melendez’s idol and inspiration was and continues to be Cesar Chavez.