SUMMARY OF JUAN MELENDEZ’S CASE
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 offense.
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 confession.
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 Berrie
n 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.
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