On September 13, 1983, after closing his
school of cosmetology Delbert Baker was murdered. His body
was found at about 8:30 pm. after his male roommate
notified the police because Mr. Baker was late coming
home. Some of Mr. Baker's jewelry was missing, although
the days receipts were still in his briefcase. Mr. Baker
was homosexual and had been known to have encounters at
the school after closing. The Medical Examiner estimated
that the time of death was approximately 7:30 p.m.
Terry Barber had stopped by the school at
a little before 6:00 pm. The door was unlocked and he
walked in. Mr. Baker came out of the backroom a little
surprised. Mr. Barber saw that Mr. Baker had company in
the back. He told the police that he believed that Vernon
James and his friend known as Bobo were the two males he
saw in backroom. However, the police abandoned that lead
when Bobo denied that he and James were there.
Instead, in March, 1984, Juan Melendez was
arrested and charged with first degree murder and robbery
on the basis of David Luna Falcon's claim that Mr.
Melendez had confessed the murder while they were doing
cocaine together. In late 1983, Mr. Melendez had
befriended Mr. Falcon's father and stepmother. In December
of 1983, Mr. Falcon's father went to Puerto Rico and
brought Mr. Falcon back with him because he was in trouble
there. Mr. Melendez and Mr. Falcon did not get along. Mr.
Melendez had a falling out with Mr. Falcon's parents.
Various people have reported that Mr. Falcon announced his
intention to get Mr. Melendez. Then in February, Mr.
Falcon went to the police claiming that Mr. Melendez had
told him that John Berrien drove him to Mr. Baker's and
that he, Juan, and a third person went inside and killed
Mr. Baker. At trial, Falcon claimed that after this
conversation with Mr. Melendez, Mr. Falcon talked to
people on the street and gathered information regarding
Mr. Baker's homicide, only then did he go to the police.
Mr. Melendez and John Berrien were
subsequently arrested. The charges against John Berrien
were reduced to accessory after the fact to which he pled
no contest and agreed to testify against Mr. Melendez in
exchange for the possibility of probation as a sentence
depending upon his testimony. George Berrien, the other
person that John Berrien said accompanied Mr. Melendez
into Mr. Del's, was never charged.
The State's theory of the case at trial
was that Mr. Melendez, John Berrien and George Berrien
drove in John Berrien's car to the victim's beauty salon
in the late afternoon of September 13, 1983. John Berrien
testified that he dropped off Mr. Melendez and George
Berrien in the vicinity of the beauty salon and returned
for them two hours later. Neither Mr. Melendez nor George
Berrien had any blood on them or their clothes. The next
day, according to John Berrien, he drove George Berrien
and Mr. Melendez to the train station, where George
Berrien boarded a train for Wilmington, Delaware. At the
train station, Mr. Melendez purportedly handed George
Berrien some jewelry and a gun which George Berrien was
supposed to sell in Delaware.
This theory rested solely on the testimony
of John Berrien and David Luna Falcon. No physical
evidence connected Mr. Melendez to the victim's death or
supported the theory regarding his participation in the
In his defense, Mr. Melendez provided an
alibi. Four witnesses testified that in the late afternoon
through the evening of September 13, 1983, Mr. Melendez
was with Dorothy Rivera. Mr. Melendez even testified in
his own behalf. George Berrien, the uncharged
co-defendant, was also called by the defense to refute the
allegations. Other witnesses testified that Mr. Falcon had
a grudge against Mr. Melendez and had threatened to kill
him before coming forward with Mr. Melendez's alleged
Meanwhile, Vernon James had been
incarcerated on other charges. Prior to trial, Mr.
Melendez' defense counsel, Roger Alcott, interviewed him
and obtained a tape statement from James indicating that
the two men he went to Mr. Del's had killed Del Baker.
James also told another inmate, Roger Mims, that he and
Mr. Baker had been having a sexual relationship, and that
on the day of the killing, he and two other men had killed
Mr. Baker. The defense listed Roger Mims and Vernon James,
as witnesses. An FDLE agent interviewed Mr. James with
this information, and Mr. James admitted his presence at
the homicide. A State Attorney investigator conducted yet
another interview of James in which he admitted
involvement in the murder. However, this interview was not
disclosed to the defense. Vernon James invoked the Fifth
Amendment and refused to testify. The State belittle Roger
Mims testimony as a desperate last minute fabrication. And
the judge refused to allow the defense to call the law
enforcement officer to whom Mr. James had admitted being
there because the testimony was hearsay. Defense counsel
failed to offer his interview as corroboration. So, the
jury only heard a jail inmate, Roger Mims, say that Vernon
James had confessed; it did not hear that Vernon James had
told an FDLE agent, Mr. Melendez' defense attorney, and a
State Attorney investigator that he was at Mr. Del's when
his two companions killed Del Baker
On the basis of the State's highly suspect
case, Mr. Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death.
John Berrien received two years probation. George Berrien
was never charged with any offense, although he testified
at the trial as a defense witness and thus was certainly
available to authorities, and although the State argued at
trial that he was "equally guilty" and
"equally involved . . . in committing the
murder." And, Vernon James was murdered in 1986.
David Falcon also died in the late 1980's.
Mr. Falcon and John Berrien were crucial
witnesses for the State. However, substantial information
undermining the credibility of Mr. Falcon and John Berrien
existed which the jury did not know. The jury did not know
that David Luna Falcon received $5000 for his testimony
against Mr. Melendez. In addition, the jury did not hear
that Mr. Falcon had been serving a forty-five year
sentence in Puerto Rico for a homicide conviction. After
escaping from prison and being apprehended Falcon agreed
to testify against individuals in a New Jersey murder
trial. After he testified, Mr. Falcon's sentence was
reduced and he was released from prison.
As to John Berrien's testimony, the jury
never heard that John Berrien told the police several
stories that were inconsistent with the testimony he
provided at trial.
In 1994, Mr. Melendez presented four
witnesses during his postconviction appeals, who testified
that Vernon James had confessed to participating in
Delbert Baker's murder. One of the witnesses was John
Berrien's attorney in whom Vernon James confided prior to
Mr. Melendez' trial. Additionally at that hearing, John
Berrien recanted much of his inculpatory testimony against
Mr. Melendez. However, the presiding judge was dubious of
the testimony and denied relief.
In 2000 while working on a federal habeas
petition, Mr. Melendez' collateral counsel contacted Mr.
Melendez' trial counsel who had just been appointed to a
judgeship. While moving boxes, he discovered the
transcript of his pretrial interview of Vernon James which
he had failed to previously provide Mr. Melendez'
collateral counsel. Armed with this transcript, Mr.
Melendez returned to state court seeking a new trial.
Several other witnesses were located who recalled that
Vernon James had confessed the murder before he died. An
evidentiary hearing was held in May of 2001. On December
6, 2001, the presiding judge ruled that Mr. Melendez was
entitled to a new trial.