dead man walking toward freedom?
Berkowitz - WorkingForChange
- 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.
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.
of this disastrous scenario, Juan Melendez may soon walk off of death row
as a free man.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
the time of Judge Fleischer's ruling, Hardy Pickard was unavailable for
comment. (You can read Juan Melendez's story in
his own words.)
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."
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."
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.
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.)
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.)
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
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."
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