Death row survivor speaks out

By Casey Peacock: PNT Staff Writer

Wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1983, former death row inmate Juan Melendez is devoting his time to speaking out about abolishing the death penalty.

“I survived. I’ve always been a survivor,” Melendez, 55, said Wednesday as he related to a small audience at Eastern New Mexico University the circumstances that led to his arrest, conviction and release from prison almost five years ago.

Melendez says he is a living example of a flawed system in which mistakes can be made that cannot be reversed, and he feels the death penalty is unfair and racist.

Kathleen Macrae, coordinator of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, brought Melendez to Portales to share his story with others.

New Mexico spends at least $3 million annually to house death row inmates, according to Macrae. The money, she said, could be used for crime prevention and better law enforcement and to support families of victims.

A bill will be introduced in the 2007 Legislature to abolish the death penalty, Macrae said.

“The legislative process is unpredictable,” said Macrae. “We have a chance, though there are no guarantees.”

A lifelong opponent of the death penalty, ENMU student Lance Kloefkorn said after hearing Melendez speak he felt more strongly than before about abolishing the death penalty.

Melendez served 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida’s death row for the murder of Delbert Baker, a beauty salon owner.

He was released in January 2002 because of new information obtained by an investigator who found evidence that identified the real killer, he said.

Melendez spoke of his anger and frustration at his situation.

Housed in a 6-by-9-foot cell, fighting rats and cockroaches for food and space, Melendez grappled with the hate he felt for the American justice system. Not knowing how to speak or read the English language put him at a disadvantage, Melendez said. After an argument with a guard, other inmates helped Melendez to learn the language, he said.

Dreaming of a beautiful place and his mother helped Melendez fight the urge to commit suicide, he said. The strength and faith of his mother and his own faith also helped to fight the demons he faced, said Melendez.

“Mama I believe suffered more than anybody,” Melendez said. “She helped keep up hope with her letters.”

Melendez said he will continue to speak for as long as it takes for the death penalty to be abolished.

“As long as I can breathe or walk, I will do it,” Melendez said.