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    Former inmate savors freedom from death row

    In the nation's leading state for exonerations of people sentenced to die, the case of Juan Roberto Melendez renews debate over the death penalty.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Locked in a dingy death row cell for nearly 18 years, Juan Roberto Melendez kept busy watching rats crawl, making friends with other condemned men and learning to read and write English.

    It was a dismal existence.

    "You are so lonely," he said Friday. "They really don't have to kill you. They kill you in there already."

    Melendez, 50, was abruptly freed Thursday night from behind the thick walls of the Florida State Prison in Starke. On Friday, he stood with a grin before a gaggle of reporters, a small man in borrowed clothes answering questions beneath fluorescent lights.

    How were you treated inside?

    "I don't feel like talking about those things right now. This is a happy day."

    What was your first meal?

    "Soup. That's all my stomach could take."

    What do you want to do now?

    "I want to see the stars and the moon. I want to look after my mama. She's 73 years old and all alone."

    Are you angry about all those wasted years?

    "I cannot be bitter. I have to have a positive mind. The only way they can repay me is by giving me 18 years back, and that's impossible. I am innocent. I've never seen the victim. I never knew where the crime occurred. Don't take my word for it. Do your own research. It's all in black and white."

    How do you feel?

    "I have a lot of mixed feelings."

    Pause. Smile. "But they are all good!"

    Melendez's case is now part of Florida's political debate over the death penalty. Opponents say the release of another death row prisoner -- Melendez is the 23rd since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 -- proves that Florida should impose a moratorium on executions until the system is studied. The state has more death row inmates exonerated than any other state. A 10-day "moratorium march" is planned later this month, starting Jan. 21 at the Florida State Prison and ending at the state Capitol.

    Melendez won't be with them; he says he plans to return to his native Puerto Rico as soon as possible.

    Friday, Melendez said he is innocent of the crime that sent him to death row: the 1983 murder of a Central Florida beauty school owner, Delbert Baker. No physical evidence ever connected Melendez to the crime. He was a migrant fruit picker with a ninth-grade education, and he couldn't read or write English when he was arrested at age 33.

    But the prosecutors on the case -- and Gov. Jeb Bush's office -- say his innocence hasn't been proved.

    "There's no proof that this man was wrongfully convicted," said Bush spokeswoman Lisa Gates. "He had access to multiple levels of appeals, and on every level, he was found guilty. There's no basis for imposing a moratorium based on this case."

    John Aguero, chief of the homicide division for the Polk County State Attorney's office, which once got Melendez convicted, said simply: "He murdered Delbert Baker. There's nothing that changes our opinion that Mr. Melendez is the person who committed this murder."

    Melendez got his break last month, when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer threw out his conviction. Fleischer found that the trial prosecutor failed to disclose important information to the defense in 1984.

    Fleischer ordered a new trial. But prosecutors said they don't have enough evidence to convict; one witness is dead, and another recanted his testimony.

    Melendez's lawyers say that another man, Vernon James, admitted to being involved in the murder. James told a lawyer years ago that Melendez wasn't involved. James is now dead, but a transcript of his 17-year-old statement recently turned up. It was powerful enough to change the outcome of Melendez's case.

    His conviction having been overturned, Melendez was let go by the state. The condemned men on death row applauded when he walked out, he said.

    "Their hopes increase when they see someone like me get their freedom," Melendez said.

    "I hope this case can help others," he said. "There's a lot of innocent men on death row nationwide. I think there are too many gaps. They make so many mistakes that innocent men can get killed, and God only knows how many have been killed."

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