A man who spent 18 years on death row for a murder he did not commit was in St. Louis Monday night. He says it`s time to get rid of the death penalty, and he has a surprising ally in Missouri.
'17 years, 8 months and one day,' said Juan Roberto Melendez. He can rattle off the dates and times without even thinking. 'Monday May 2, 1984 was the day I was arrested.'
November 2, 1984 was the day he was convicted.
Monday night he walked freely through the halls of the Millennium Student Center on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus. For so many days, he couldn`t.
'I was innocent,' he said. 'It`s like a bad nightmare. And you can never wake up.'
'I always tell God, `It took too long, God`. 17 years, 8 months and 1 day.'
After 18 years on Florida`s death row, for a murder he didn`t commit, he was released in 2002. He said he doesn`t have anger at God. He is angry with the system. And it`s a system that`s allowed Missouri to make mistakes, too.
St. Louis native Darryl Burton was released from prison in 2008, after serving 24 years of a life sentence for murder. He was innocent. So was Josh Kezer, released in 2009 after 16 years. They were not on death row, but their wrongful convictions are haunting enough for a republican lawmaker to make history. For the 1st time in Missouri, a republican is the main sponsor of a bill that would abolish the death penalty. Representative Mike McGhee of Odessa, Missouri is sponsoring House bill 1520.
'If I`m really a pro-life guy, am I really a pro-life guy? Is that all life or just what`s convenient? A baby`s life? Isn`t everybody`s life what I should be caring about?' asked McGhee. 'And I think I should. I think I should be feeling that way.'
They`ve never met, but Melendez is a sudden fan of McGhee`s. 'To me this is personal. We need more people that can think like that,' said Melendez.
He agrees with another of the lawmaker`s arguments, too: that the death penalty doesn`t make financial sense, either.
'The state can`t afford to do this anymore,' said McGhee. 'It`s cheaper to keep them locked up, throw away the key, than to end up trying to put them to death.'
'And many times, we`ll spend 700 thousand dollars per inmate and still never put them to death.'
'I struggle with someone who`s taken the life of somebody`s mother or child or something like that, I truly struggle with what should be done with these horrible people,' he said, 'but then some of them are found to be innocent and, boy, I`d hate to think we`d put somebody to death that really hadn`t committed one of these horrible crimes.'
Melendez has been free for 10 years. He now travels the country telling his story.
'We can never release an innocent man from the grave,' he said. 'God only knows how many people didn`t have the luck I have had.'
Representative McGhee says his legislation probably doesn`t have much chance of passing this year, but he hopes he`s planting a seed for the future.