A dead man walking toward freedom?

Bill Berkowitz - WorkingForChange 

12.23.01 - Juan Roberto Melendez, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951 and raised in Puerto Rico, has spent the last seventeen years on Florida's death row. If it weren't for the tenacity of his legal team at Capital Collateral Representative over the past fifteen years, Melendez, also known to the state as DC# 046466, would now be a prime candidate for a death warrant. 

Few people would have paid attention to his execution. It might have made the headlines for a news cycle or two. Most people would have presumed the state wouldn't have executed him unless he was guilty. In today's vengeance-driven climate, many would believe he got what he deserved. Death penalty supporters would have been glad to see him die, but wouldn't be completely satisfied; they'd likely complain that it took too long from the time Melendez was convicted to when he was executed. 

Instead of this disastrous scenario, Juan Melendez may soon walk off of death row as a free man. 

Melendez had been on Florida's death row since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second term as president. In 1984, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. He has spent seventeen of his fifty years on this planet in prison for a crime he didn't commit. What is especially disturbing about this case is that it appears that there was little doubt about Melendez's innocence from the very beginning. 

The case 

On September 13, 1983, Delbert Baker was found dead at his Auburndale, Florida beauty school. He had been shot three times, his throat had been cut, and his expensive gold jewelry was missing. Vernon James, a man seen at the beauty school just before Baker's murder "was not pursued," according to a handout prepared earlier this year by Melendez's defense team. The defense charges that "the crime scene was mishandled, a blood sample was destroyed, and other evidence was ignored." 

In 1984, David Falcon, contacted Florida law enforcement officials claiming he knew who killed Baker. Here is the defense team's account: "Falcon aspired to become a confidential informant for local law enforcement and he also held a personal grudge against Juan [Melendez]. Falcon claimed Juan had confessed to the killing, but he did not know basic details such as where the crime had occurred. Falcon also implicated another Lakeland man, John Berrien [who] was picked up and, after being threatened with the death penalty, told multiple stories riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Berrien finally wove a tale that was acceptable to authorities saying he had driven Juan to the beauty school around the time of the killing. 

"According to Berrien, Juan had been armed with a .38 caliber firearm that day and later described jewelry he'd taken in the robbery. Berrien also claimed his cousin, George Berrien, had gone into the school with Juan that day. No weapon or jewelry was ever recovered. No physical evidence was found in Berrien's car, in which Juan and George had allegedly made their escape from the blood-deluged crime scene. George Berrien denied his cousin's story, testified on behalf of Juan's defense, and this supposed co-perpetrator was never even charged. John Berrien was sentenced to two years of house arrest as an accessory to first-degree murder after the fact." 

The trial 

Melendez went on trial in September, 1984. Falcon and Berrien were the key prosecution witnesses. Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Melendez to the crime and that he had an alibi -- he was with a married girlfriend the night of the murder -- he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and armed robbery. On September 21, 1984, the Court sentenced Melendez to death. 

A month before the Melendez trial began, another man, Vernon James, confessed to the murder of Delbert Baker. A tape-recorded confession was made in the presence of Melendez's defense investigator and attorney. In that statement, James admitted "he had been at the beauty school when Baker was murdered by two other men and [he] declar[ed] that Juan Melendez had not been anywhere near the scene of the crime. 

"James was prepared to testify to this fact, but decided to invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when called to the stand (though a cell-mate did testify that James had confessed his involvement). And due to rulings regarding hearsay evidence in the case, the taped statement was never shown to the judge or jury and was only recently discovered by Juan's post-conviction attorneys." 

The reversal 

On December 5, 2001, eighteen years after Baker was murdered and seventeen years after Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death, Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer granted Juan Melendez a new trial. One of the most important items leading to the Judge's ruling was the unearthing of Vernon James' taped confession. 

In the summer of 2000, Rosa Greenbaum began working the case for Capital Collateral Representative (CCR). CCR is a public defender for those who have been sentenced to death in the northern region of Florida. They take over after the death sentence and conviction has been affirmed on direct appeal. "This next stage," according to Greenbaum, "is referred to as 'Postconviction' and, unlike direct appeal attorneys, we are allowed to bring up non-record violations such as withholding of exculpatory evidence and newly discovered evidence -- the grounds on which Fleischer based her ruling." CCR has been working on the Melendez case since 1988. 

Greenbaum contacted the trial defense investigator, Cody Smith, and he subsequently got in touch with defense attorney Roger Alcott. After much searching they were able to find the transcript of the confession of Vernon James. According to the Judge's order, "Mr. Alcott stated that he did not specifically recall whether he provided the transcript to the prosecution pursuant to the rules of discovery, but assumed that he would have done so. Additionally, although Mr. Alcott acknowledged that he had conducted the taped interview of Vernon James prior to trial, he testified that he did not know if he had provided a copy of the transcript to collateral counsel prior to the time he found it in his old files in August or September of 2000. He was certain, however, that he did not intentionally withhold it from them." And the state attorney, Hardy Pickard, testified that he had been in possession of the transcript since the original trial. 

In addition to the taped statement, Melendez' attorneys presented a dozen witnesses at two separate hearings who testified that Vernon James had made incriminating statements over the years regarding his involvement in Baker's murder, and that he had indicated numerous times that the wrong men were paying for the crime. 

According to the Miami Herald, "[Judge] Fleischer found that [John] Berrien's trial testimony repeatedly contradicted the sworn statement he gave prosecutor Hardy Pickard during an interview -- a statement Pickard failed to disclose to either the defense or the jury. 

"Furthermore, wrote the judge, Pickard misled the jury about [David] Falcon's reason for testifying against Melendez, saying that Falcon had 'nothing to gain by his testimony.'' Falcon escaped charges for violently breaking into a residence, in exchange for his testimony." 

At the time of Judge Fleischer's ruling, Hardy Pickard was unavailable for comment. (You can read Juan Melendez's story in his own words.) 

A grim reality 

There are currently about 3,700 inmates on state and federal death rows, which according to Department of Justice statistics is up from about 3,600 in 2000. In mid-December, the New York Times reported that "for the second year in a row, the number of executions declined across the country, a pattern partly attributable to the ebb and flow of the appeals process yet one that punctuates a year in which many states re-examined the fairness of capital punishment." Vincent Edward Cooks, executed in Texas, December 12, "became the 66th inmate in the nation put to death, down from 85 in 2000 and 98 in 1999. This is the first time since executions resumed in 1977 that the number of executions has fallen in consecutive years." 

The New York Times: "Nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans support the death penalty, though that support has gradually eroded. A Gallup poll this spring showed that 65 percent of Americans supported capital punishment, down from about 80 percent in 1994. Polls also show that Americans are increasingly concerned about how the death penalty is administered, particularly in light of prominent cases of freed death row inmates. An ABC News poll in April found that 51 percent of respondents supported a nationwide moratorium on executions while a commission studied the fairness of the death penalty." 

The Death Penalty Information Center claims that since 1973, 98 people in 22 states have been freed from death row. Over the past several years, the number of cases of wrongly convicted death row inmates who were later found to be innocent and were released have been occurring with increasing frequency. 

Peter Limone served 33 years in a Massachusetts prison before he was released earlier this year. James Richardson was released from Florida's death row in 1989 after 21 years. Charles Fain served 18 years in Idaho. Dennis Williams did 17 years in Illinois. Freddie Pitt and Wilbert Lee each served 12 years on death row in Florida before they were released. And also in Florida, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer after fourteen years on death row-just months before DNA testing of the evidence (which the state had successfully fought for years) fully exonerated him. (Florida leads the nation in convicting and then freeing innocent people.) 

When you read the stories of these men, they make you question how many thousands of others may be in prison because of an overzealous prosecutor or convicted on the basis of falsified testimony and phony evidence. And how many innocent people have been executed down through the years? I'm also wondering how the Juan Melendez's prosecutor, Hardy Pickard, spent the past 17 years. (For more on the death penalty, see www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innoc.html.) 

For now, Juan Melendez will remain on death row until the Florida Supreme Court affirms Judge Fleischer's ruling, which could take a long time Rosa Greenbaum told me. "Presuming the state appeals, and they undoubtedly will, they have 30 days from December 5th to file notice of appeal," she said. Greenbaum doubts there will be a retrial because the state doesn't have any evidence or witnesses. "In the past," she said, "in Polk County, they have allowed others in Juan's position to plead no contest to 2nd degree murder, time served." 

Juan Melendez has siblings, aunts and a mother who is in her seventies and living in Maunabo, Puerto Rico, in a house by the water that he helped build for her at age 14. According to Greenbaum, he writes a lot of letters and he is not bitter or angry. "He seems to have found solace in the knowledge that he is innocent and the hope that a court might one day agree," she said. "Now that that has happened, I think he is floating on air -- and dreaming of Puerto Rico." 

"The most important thing to remember," she added, "is that this outcome does not show that the system works, as death penalty supporters might claim. If not for a courageous judge, witnesses who selflessly showed up and told the truth, the simple dumb luck of locating the taped confession of Vernon James after all these years, and the surprising fact that James told lots of people what he'd done, this story would likely have a very different ending." 

© 2001 WorkingForChange.com 

UPDATE

Man freed after nearly 18 years on Florida death row

RAIFORD, Fla., Jan. 4 ó  A man who spent nearly 18 years on death row for a slaying he says he didnít commit walked out of prison Thursday night and began the task of putting his life back together after prosecutors dropped a bid to go ahead with a new trial.
 

Juan Melendez, left, smiles after his release from the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Fla.  Accompanying Melendez are attorneys Rosa Greenbaum, right, and Marty McClain.


 
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