The next speaker was a professor from Georgia State University, a middle-aged white woman who spoke of the need for restorative justice—mediated conversations between the families of murder victims and the murderers, and emotional and social support for the families. These, she said, would provide closure in a way the death penalty never would.
Our closing speaker was Juan Melendez, an exonerated death row inmate. As he spoke, his eyes widened, and he gesticulated wildly with his hands. His voice grew deep and clear, and his words were heavily accented.
“There are over a hundred innocent people exonerated from death row. That means my story isn’t unique. But over a thousand people have been executed. And God only knows! God only knows how many of them weren’t as lucky as me or the other people who were exonerated.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico, and couldn’t speak English. I knew maybe five words of English then, and three of them were cuss words! They read the charges against me—armed robbery and first degree murder in Florida. And they wanted the death penalty, the electric chair. I have no money for a lawyer, so they hire a public defender.
“He would say things to me, and I wouldn’t understand. They never gave me an interpreter. And the evidence they had against me? A police informant—what they call a snitch on the streets—said I confessed to him. See how similar my case is to Troy’s? They also had a police informant against him, the same informant who now says he lied at trial. They had a police informant against me, and they had my friend, or at least I thought he was my friend. He was arrested and told he was an accessory to the crime, and they threatened him with a first degree murder charge and the death penalty, the electric chair.
“But then . . . then the state of Florida made a deal with him. Prosecutors in this country, they make deals with criminals! The first degree murder charge? Dropped. The death penalty? Dropped. You know what he got? He testified against me and got two years of probation.
“On death row, I would sometimes think dark thoughts. I would think of committing suicide. They going to kill you anyway! You say you’re innocent, and you think they gonna believe you? Why spend even one more day in this hell? I’m tired of it! I want outta here! One day I made a noose and was ready to do it, but I decided to sleep on it, to see if this was what I really wanted to do. So I fell into a deep sleep, and I dreamed I was a boy again, back home in Puerto Rico. And then I was swimming in the Caribbean. I saw a woman! She was smiling because she saw I was happy. And then I woke up. And I yelled, ‘I do not want to die!’
“Every day I would pray, ‘God, let me see my mama again. I just want to see her, outside of this prison.’ When I saw those prison bars, I would see my mother. And when I prayed to God, I would see my mother. And when the guards yelled at me, I would see my mother!
“The people on death row are some of the most hated people in this country. Monsters, people call them. These monsters were the people who taught me to read, taught me to write, taught me to speak English!
“And you want to know how I was released? They found a video of another man confessing to the murder. They looked in the old files, and they found it in a box! A judge said they must give me a new trial or release me within ninety days. They didn’t want a new trial, because they knew they didn’t have evidence. You know what they did? They waited the full ninety days before releasing me! They gave me $100 and no apology.”
He paused for a moment and looked around the room.
“My name is Juan, and I spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime I did not commit.”