Former death row inmate Juan Melendez spent almost 18 years—17 years, 8 months and 1 day, to be exact— in jail before being exonerated of a 1994 murder conviction in 2002. Convicted of murder in 1994.
Melendez spoke on campus, at the Washington University Law School on Tuesday in an event co-sponsored by the Webster society scholars and Criminal Law Society. He sat down with Student Life before the talk to discuss his experience on death row.
SL: Tell us a little about the history of your arrest.
JM: In 1994 I as convicted and sentenced to death for a crime I did not commit, in the state of Florida. The case was based on the testimony of two questionable witnesses, with no physical evidence against me. One witness claimed that I confessed the crime to him. He implicated a friend of mine and he gets arrested, interrogated, he incriminates himself in the crime. He gets charged with 1st degree murder and armed robbery, and he decides to make a deal to become what you call a co-defendant he gets the 1st degree murder charge dropped, his armed robbery charge dropped, all the way to accessory after the facts he gets 2 years probation with 2 years he already had.
Basically what he said on trial was that he picked me up, took me to the scene of the crime, dropped me off, came back an hour and a half later, picked me up again, and took me home. That’s the full evidence against me, no physical evidence. There’s the testimony of two questionable witnesses with criminal records, two questionable witnesses who made deals with the state prosecutors, who got leniency for the crimes they committed.
The trial started on a Monday picking the jury, Tuesday we were still were picking the jury, Wednesday evidence came in, Thursday they found me guilty, Friday the same week they sent me to death, and the judge complained that it was taking too long.
SL: If you could give one statement about how you feel about the death penalty what would it be?
JM: I would say it’s barbaric.
SL: What is the number one thing you have to say to students at Washington University about the death penalty?
JM: I would say that the death penalty does not deter crimes. I would say that the death penalty is racist. I would say that the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary. We have alternatives. I would say that the death penalty costs too much and I would say the most important thing that this great state of Missouri has it, that any state has it any nation any country, there will always be the risk of executing an innocent man. We can always release an innocent one from prison. We have no problems with that, but we can never release an innocent man from the grave. Just like we got rid of segregation, we can get rid of this madness of the death penalty.
SL: How does this relate to students?
JM: Every big issue, everything that needs to be changed in this world, if you look at history has been [lead by] students. It has been the young ones who get it changed. They play a big role in the abolition of the death penalty.
SL: How did your experience on death row affect you?
JM: I would not wish it to my worst enemy.
SL: Why do you choose to share your experience?
JM: I don’t want what has happened to me to happen to anyone else.
(source: Student Life)