Monday, 26 March 2007

My name is Juan Roberto Melendez and I spent almost eighteen years on Florida’s death row for a crime I did not commit

Written testimony submitted to the Governor’s Commission on the Administration of Lethal Injection in Florida

Dear Commissioners:

I would like to thank you for being part of a very important Commission which is investigating the botched execution of Angel Diaz and the current administration of lethal injection in the state of Florida. I am grateful that former Governor Bush recognized that there is a problem with the current administration of lethal injection and that the issue warrants a moratorium on executions and thorough investigation of the lethal injection process in Florida.

My name is Juan Roberto Melendez and I spent almost eighteen years on Florida’s death row for a crime I did not commit. I am the ninety-ninth death row inmate in the country to be exonerated because of innocence and the twenty-second in the state of Florida which has the highest number of death row exonerations in the country at twenty-four.

Two friends of mine who were on Florida’s death row were executed by lethal injection last year, Clarence Hill and Angel Diaz. It was a very difficult year for me and I cannot overstate just how much I was devasted by these executions. These men were like family to me, they were both very flawed human beings but they changed throughout their years on Florida’s death row. They became men of faith who counseled and guided the younger, more volatile prisoners.

I could easily have been executed last year along with Clarence Hill and Angel Diaz had it not been for pure miracles in my case. These miracles included the discovery of a taped confession of the real killer sixteen years after I had been sentenced to death and the removal of my case to a different county were an independent and courageous judge meticulously reviewed my case.

I believe that like me, Angel Diaz was innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death and executed. The case against him was weak, so weak that he had been offered a plea bargain of five years. He refused to accept the plea because he would not admit to something he did not do.

I spent time with Angel Diaz’s family several days before the execution. The pain that they suffered throughout the preceding month is unimaginable—never knowing whether their loved one would actually be executed. Hoping and praying that he would not, but knowing that it was likely the execution would take place. A photo of Angel Diaz’s sister, cousin and daughter appeared in a Puerto Rican newspaper one day after the execution. It will always stay in my mind. It shows the agony that the family endured at the moment their loved one was pronounced dead, following the thirty-four minute long botched execution of their loved one—this was a truly agonizing wait for the family and was entirely unnecessary. No family should have to endure such emotional torture and I do hope that this commission will make findings and recommendations which will ensure that it will never happen again. Not only did Angel Diaz, a very likely innocent man, suffer unnecessary pain and suffering but so did his family.

One way to ensure that such a tragic and torturous execution will never again take place in the state of Florida is to eliminate lethal injection entirely.

Finally, I urge the Commission to recommend that another commission be established to investigate the broader issue of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases and wrongful executions in Florida. Florida has the highest number of death row exonerations in the country. When you study these cases you realize how very fortunate so many of the exonerees were to be able to prove their innocence. God only knows how many of those already executed in the State of Florida were not so fortunate. Attempting to fix the administration of lethal injection, ignores the broader and more fundamental problem of wrongful convictions and wrongful executions in the state of Florida.

There are numerous problems with Florida’s death penalty system which make it particularly prone to error, problems which were highlighted in the ABA special Florida commission’s report, released on September 19, 2006. Such an error-prone system is not in the public’s interest nor is it consistent with fundamental principles of democracy and human rights. In terms of public policy, it not only fails to protect our children and our communities but it also leaves us more vulnerable to violence. How are we protecting our children when innocent people are convicted and sentenced to death while the real killer is living in our communities, free to kill again?

Thank you for your kind consideration and deliberation on this very important matter.

Yours Sincerely,

Juan Roberto Melendez

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