HomeInnocence Links Press Releases FL Execution Information Facts Get Involved Local Groups Reports DP in the News U.S. Execution Information Yes Florida, There is an ALTERNATIVE to the Death Penalty
FADP With Juan Melendez on Fox’s “Your Turn” Show.
KATHY: The 1983 murder of the owner of a popular cosmetology school, Mr. Dell Baker, shocked the small town of Auberndale. A 33-year-old former fruit picker, Mr. Juan Melendez, was convicted of Mr. Bakers murder, and spent 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day on death row. From the beginning, he said he was innocent, and about 4 years ago, his attorneys unearthed another mans confession to that same crime. And last year, Juan Melendez became the 24th death row inmate to be freed, and the 99th inmate nationwide. Adding to a growing movement calling for a moratorium on executions in this country, although, so far, Illinois is the only state to have done so. So today, were going to be asking you about that, and so please welcome Mr. Melendez, a former death row inmate visiting from Puerto Rico. Welcome, Mr. Melendez.
JUAN: Thank you.
KATHY: Welcome also Abe Bonowitz, from the Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Welcome, Mr.Bonowitz.
ABE: Thank you.
KATHY: Juan, you didnt know any English when you went into prison, is that right? You only spoke Spanish?
JUAN: Thats right, I only spoke Spanish.
KATHY: So how did you learn to read and write English when you went into prison?
JUAN: The death row condemned men taught me/
KATHY: What did it feel like the day they let you out?
JUAN: Oh, its like coming into Heaven and coming out of hell.
KATHY: What was the first thing you went to eat?
JUAN: Well, I had a all I could take was soup. The first thing I wanted to do was to look was look at the sky, look at the stars, touch the grass, climb trees, hold a baby, things like that.
KATHY: Tell, me what those 17 years were like for you on death row.
JUAN: It was torture, painful. Lots of times I wanted to give up, commit suicide. It was a bad, bad experience. I would not wish it to my worst enemies.
KATHY: Mr. Bonowitz, I know youre here because your organization supports a moratorium on executions for cases like Mr. Melendez. Now, I know the prosecutors from Mr. Melendez case say that they still believe that he did it; they just dont have the evidence now to go back after him
ABE: Of course they say that, because they dont want to admit that they made a mistake; and, actually, in this case, the judge from this case, Barbara Fleischer, and actually another judge from another case, admonished the prosecutor, Hardy Pickard, for hiding evidence from the Court and from Juan, so that he couldnt raise the evidence. They knew that this man was innocent before they took him to trial. And of course, the spin is now that although hes guilty, but thats not the case. They knew he was the wrong person; they knew who actually committed the crime; and that is happening too often. In fact, todays Miami Herald has the story of another man: they found a suspect and tried to pin evidence to him, instead of trying to pint evidence to a suspect. James Duckett is going to be coming off of Death Row this year.
KATHY: Juan, so what do you say to the Polk County prosecutors office when they still say that you committed this murder?
JUAN: Well, I would say that you only have to look at the documents and do research, and its all in black and white. Its clear, its clear that Im innocent. They even have a taped confession and physical evidence that Im not the person who committed this crime.
KATHY: That confession Vernon James, a man who said and confessed on tape that he committed the murder, before they went to trial.
ABE: Yes, and he was a police informant, which is why they wanted to protect him. Now, he was found dead a few years later, but the fact is, that they couldnt even indite this man today if they went to trial, because there is no evidence, and how could there be? He didnt do it.
KATHY: Okay, Richard from Lakeland, were taking your call.
RICHARD: Hey, hi Kathy. As far as a moratorium, how about we take a different look at this, and keep some __ in this. If they catch you youre on video, youve got a smoking gun, youve confessed to it well, instead of going 8, 10, 12 years, all the court processes and all this, I dont know how much it costs for us taxpayers to support a person on death row who is beyond the shadow of a doubt guilty, thousands of dollars. Now, if its a questionable case but there are people were paying a lot of money just to keep them
KATHY: Okay, point well taken. Now, this Vernon Jones, we dont know about him, we cant ask him now, hes dead. And his confession, we dont know that it would have completely exonerated him, it certainly would have added a lot of doubt to the trial, but we dont know
JUAN: Well, this man did a confession, there are plenty of witnesses that he confessed to, and there are witnesses who saw the jewelry that he stole, they saw him with the jewelry that he stole, because they knew the victim and all of these people who testified on my behalf, I dont know none of them.
KATHY: Well, this is obviously a questionable case, no physical evidence, nothing connecting him to the crime, and they convicted him anyway. But, after the break, what about the cases where you have surveillance tape, you have DNA, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the person do you want a moratorium on those people? Well take a break, and ask them what they think about that when we come back.
KATHY: Juan Melendez joining us today after 18 years on death row, after a taped confession to the crime, that he didnt commit, and Abe Bonowitz also with us today let me just ask you, before I take this caller, about what the last caller today, what about a person who committed a heinous crime, a murder, and you know that he did it do you want a moratorium on those people, and let them get off, scot-free?
ABE: Well, let me and what a moratorium is a time-out, a t
emporary freeze on executions until we can be sure that the system is fair and accurate. And what you have to do, is step back from the individual case and look at how the system works as a whole. And what you see, is that what really matters more, is race, politics, geography and money, rather than the severity of the crime, or even if we know for sure that there is guilty and even then, we have written into our law standards of culpability, for example, if the person was a juvenile offender, or was mentally ill or mentally retarded. There are mechanisms to take that into account. But, if it was that way you kill, youre convicted, you get the death penalty, you die and I used to believe that, I used to support –
KATHY: You used to support the death penalty?
ABE: I used to support the death penalty, one hundred percent. I used to say, Ill pull the switch.
KATHY: What changed your mind?
ABE: I learned that it was less about the crime, and more about race, politics, geography, and money. You have to kill a white person. You have to kill in a county that can afford a death penalty trial. Newton Slawson who we executed on Friday if he had committed his murders in a more rural county, he wouldnt have gotten the death penalty, because they couldnt have afforded a death penalty trial, because it costs a lot more. That alone, is enough to say that weve got a system that isnt working, because it isnt fair and accurate.
KATHY: Okay, Juan, in your 17 years in prison, you had to have run across some men in there, who you knew who had done some really bad things, had committed murder, had committed rape. Do you also believe that there should be a moratorium on executions for those people?
JUAN: Well, yes, there should be a moratorium for the sake of the innocence. And the thing is, some of these men, we could do better to study them, to find out why they commit these crimes. And I tell you, I met serial killers, and they are smart people. They are cowards, but they are smart people. And I tell you, we could study them, to find out more about them, to prevent more people from committing these crimes.
KATHY: So keep killers alive, so that we can study them?
JUAN: Well, yes, thats what Im saying, because if you take someone who can kill 40 women and get away with it, and when they finally catch him, its because he leaves something behind, because he wants to get caught, we need to learn about him, to find out why he did that, so that we can prevent another monster from committing these gruesome crimes.
KATHY: Of course, thats unlikely to be any consolation to someone whos lost a loved one to a serial, to say, Lets keep him alive to study him.
JUAN: Well, the thing is, that people think that prison is a picnic. Its not a picnic. You suffer in prison. Youre in a cell. They bring the food. You cant go out. When you cant go out, cant go out at all, some of them want to die, because they suffer so much in there.
KATHY: Okay, Roger in Venice.
ROGER: Yes, according to these two cons that you have on right now, these people could die of old age before their sentence is carried out. People today have no fear of the death penalty. Now, you go back to the 30s and 40s, where you had 6 months with appeals and then you were dead, that put the fear of God in them. Now
KATHY: Now, what would you say about the numbers of people, dozens in fact, who were freed after years on death row after new evidence came to light DNA, in many cases that they were innocent? What do you say about that?
ROGER: In the population of all the prisons in the United States, that is an extreme rarity when one of them gets off. Theyre going on that premise, that well, Maybe 50% of them are innocent. But thats not
KATHY: So you kill one innocent person, is that too much, is that OK with you?
ROGER: That is a sad fact of life, that that could sometimes happen
ABE: Thats okay with him, as long as it isnt his loved one or him who is being executed. The fact is, you look at this monsters, or these huge numbers of people in prison, and Florida has over 10,000 people serving life without the possibility of parole, and just over 360 people on death row. And very often, you cant tell the difference between those who got death, and those who got life without the possibility of parole. And in Florida today, life without parole means that. You are never coming out.
KATHY: Okay, Bob in Sarasota, your turn.
BOB: I have to agree with the gentleman there. I was a very staunch, 100% believer in the death penalty, but then I started to look at this information, and I thought, they need to put a moratorium on executions, until they can figure it out and get it right.
KATHY: Let me read to you what a spokesperson for Governor Bush said, after hearing, here is a man who got out and spent time on death row for a crime he did not commit, here is what the spokesperson said: We will not be calling for a moratorium; there is no proof that this man was wrongfully convicted. He had access to multiple levels of appeals, and at each level he was found guilty. Floridians have spoken out on this issue, and overwhelmingly support capital punishment when violent murders are committed against innocent people. Imposing a moratorium would ___ and subvert justice.
ABE: And again, thats spin. If you look at Florida has a commission on capital cases, whose function is to oversee private lawyers, and provide information to the Legislature. Well, that commission was asked to do a report on the 25 people released from Floridas death row so far. And actually, I was with them when they started to talk to this report, because they were out there saying, these are all bad people, that
KATHY: The ones who were released
ABE: Yes, they were out there saying, theyve got this report, and you can look on their web page and when I called then, this man here had been out for more than 6 months, and they didnt even know about it; they were counting 23 people. Now, the state of Florida counts 25 people who have been released; they Death Penalty Information Center counts 23 they dont count people like Sunny Jacobs, and Joe Spaziano, so the number you gave, 22, was on the national list from the Death Penalty Information Center
KATHY: So its actually 25
ABE: This is the 24th person released out of death row, due to actual innocence. And that from the Governors office is complete spin.
KATHY: Yes. So well talk about after the break, the agency that provides lawyers and appeals to death row inmates, as you may know, is on the chopping block with Governor Bush. More about that, after this.
KATHY: Abe Bonowitz joining us today along with Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years on death row. The CCRC, one of the agencies that provides appeals for death row inmates, is one of those items that they are looking at cutting out of the budget. Why shouldnt they?
ABE: The Capital Collateral Regional Counsel was set up, actually, by pro-death penalty legislators in the 1980s, who were frustrated that death row inmates were not moving through the system fast enough, because they were not getting their cases heard
KATHY: They werent getting executed
ABE: Right, and now whats happening is that the CCRC is doing its job too well, or maybe the prosecutors arent doing as good of a job. Whats happening, is that in Florida, at least 50% of the sentences are overturned on appeal. And 3 of the last 4 or 5 exonerations were CCRC c
ases. And so I suspect that the Governor simply wants to avoid the embarrassment of future exonerations. Florida leads the nation, with 25 people released off of our death row. And what they want to do now is to privatize the system, and hire private lawyers. But they chop them off at the knees, because there is a funding cap that only allows for payment of a third of the time commonly thought necessary to doing these cases. You get paid for 800 hours, but it takes 2700 to 3300 hours.
KATHY: So it was the CCRC that was able to get involved and into your case and find that confession, right?
JUAN: Yes, thats why Im free. I owe CCR my life. Without CCR, I wouldnt be here today.
KATHY: Okay. Do you think that the fact that you were Hispanic, non-English speaking worked against you in the trial?
JUAN: Well, sure it worked against me. I was in the trial where I didnt understand nothing what they were saying.
KATHY: They didnt give you an interpreter?
JUAN: They didnt give me an interpreter. I didnt know nothing, nothing about law. All I knew is what my lawyer was telling me, patting me on the back, telling me, Youre going home. And the next thing I know, Ive got the death penalty.
KATHY: So what do you recall about the trial?
JUAN: Well, Im sitting down in there, listening to the witnesses, there were only 2 against me; they first just said that I told him that I committed the crime, thats all he said, the other said that he dropped me in the area and left, and he didnt know what happened. And all of a sudden, Im found guilty. And I had alibi witnesses, I had everything to commit that I didnt commit the crime.
ABE: And by the way, the two witnesses against Juan got deals, lesser sentences.
KATHY: Are you bitter?
JUAN: Well, no
KATHY: 17 years of your life, just gone.
JUAN: Well, no, I take this negative situation, negative situation in my life, and I try my best to turn it into something positive. I go out, and talk to other people, tell them about the death penalty, what it does, what its all about, that what happened to me could happen to them. If I stay bitter, if I get angry, then I would not be able to do these things, I got to have an open mind, I got to set up a sound pole, I got to let them know that it was a good man that they locked in there.
KATHY: What do you do for a living now?
JUAN: Well, I take care of my momma, and she takes care of me. I work with Abe, and he finds ways to get me some money. And thats all I do.
ABE: Juan receives honoraria for his speaking engagements, so if people would like to have him come and speak at their school, or their churches, then they can contact us at (800) 973-6548.
KATHY: Okay, Jake from Bradenton, youre on.
JAKE: Hello, thanks for taking my call. I actually have some personal experience because a young man I happened to have recruited as a probation officer was murdered in Dade County, and the perpetrators remain on death row since 1982. And that was before we were considered law enforcement officers. And the officer was shot 5 times, so of course they meant to kill. And the perpetrators remain on death row since 1982. And its unfair to compare Floridas justice system with Illinois. The attorneys in Illinois are very political in their election, and (indiscernible) and hes wrong in saying that once you get life without parole in Florida, then you cant get out, because after 10 years the fact is you can go to Floridas Board of Executive Clemency, and you can shake your head all you want!
ABE: I dont know what youre talking about, sir.
JAKE: And if you have a clean record, for any crime, after ten years, in Florida, you can appeal
KATHY: Okay, so bottom line, Im out of time, are you for a moratorium or are you against it?
JAKE: Oh, absolutely against it. We should keep it, we should carry it out, we should do it promptly, and there are an awful lot of appeals, and DNA in rape cases I think is a good thing.
KATHY: Id like to thank Juan Melendez and Abe Bonowitz for being with us today, and all of you for calling in. I understand that youre going to be in the area tonight?
ABE: Yes, Amnesty International is honoring one of Juans lawyers. Tickets still available, its $45 at the door, at Viva la Frida. And that includes a full meal and a program.
KATHY: And you can hear him speak, and all. Well, thanks for being with us today, nice meeting you today, and thatll do it for us today at noon.
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
2603 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hwy
Gainesville, FL 32609