prison systems

The Innocence List

WHILE JUAN ROBERTO Meléndez sat on Florida’s death row, his mother, back in Puerto Rico, built an altar in her home where she placed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She prayed three rosaries a day for his release and wrote letters to her son assuring him that God knew of his innocence. If Juan would put his trust in God, eventually he would be freed.

“I believed her,” Meléndez says. “But I also told him later, ‘It took you too long, God.’”

It took 17 years, eight months, and one day.

It took considerably less time to send him to death row. Meléndez, a migrant fruit picker, was arrested in Pennsylvania in May 1984, charged with the killing of a man in Florida, where he had previously lived. Meléndez, who spoke very little English, was appointed a public defender but not a translator.

“He kept patting me on the back and saying everything’s going to be okay,” Meléndez recalls.

In one week’s time he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, with no physical evidence presented against him. The conviction rested on the testimony of two questionable witnesses—a police informant with a criminal record and a co-defendant who was threatened with the electric chair but who ultimately received a sentence of two years’ probation after he testified against Meléndez. The jury contained 11 white members and one African American.

Meléndez was sent to death row on a November Tuesday in 1984, “an ugly, ugly day.” On Thursday, guards took a man to be executed. “I got real scared then, thought they killed someone every week. I wondered: How long until they come for me?”

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