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Florida death row inmate to be released, 99th freed nationwide
By VICKIE CHACHERE - Associated Press Writer: Thursday, January 3, 2002
TAMPA, Fla. - A man who has spent 17 years on death row for a slaying to
which another man had repeatedly confessed will go free because prosecutors
say they don't have enough evidence to proceed with a court-ordered retrial.
Prosecutors decided Thursday not to retry Juan Melendez, who was
convicted on witness testimony for the 1983 killing of cosmetology school
owner Delbert Baker. No physical evidence linked Melendez to the slaying.
Melendez, 50, lost several rounds of appeals and had his death sentence
upheld by the Florida Supreme Court until the transcript of the other man's
confession to the Polk County slaying was discovered in 1999.
Defense attorneys said the true killer, a now deceased man named Vernon
James, confessed to at least four investigators or attorneys, but none of those
admissions were admitted in court.
"I'm happy to finally have it over and to have Juan released," said attorney
Marty McClain, who pursued his appeal. "But it really is a sad day that the
system allowed this to happen and for it to go on so long."
Melendez was granted a new trial in December, but the Polk County State
Attorney's Office will not take the case back before a jury because one of the
only two witnesses against Melendez has recanted and the other is now dead,
said Chip Thullbery, administrative assistant state attorney.
"That leaves us, frankly, with nothing to proceed on," Thullbery said.
Prosecutors, though, offered no apologies for the way the case was handled
"You have a lot of people looking back over a lot of different years and
have somebody in prison who decided to recant his testimony," said
Thullbery, who was not involved in the original prosecution. "We can't try the
case now, but it certainly was a case that needed to be tried then."
Prosecutors did not know how long it would take for Melendez to be freed.
He is currently being held at Union Correctional Institution.
The Department of Corrections said Melendez would likely be released in
days, after it receives notification from Polk County.
Melendez is the 99th U.S. death row freed after being cleared by new
evidence, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Project in Washington.
Dieter said inmates are being released more frequently in the last decade
roughly a half-dozen inmates each year - due to newly discovered evidence or
DNA testing which many states now allow in appeals.
Last year, Jerry Frank Townsend, who is mentally retarded, was released
from prison after DNA tests linked another man to some killings to which
Townsend had confessed.
In Melendez's case, it took the 1999 discovery of a transcript detailing
conversation between Melendez's original attorney and James, who was
considered as a possible suspect early in the case.
One of Baker's friends told police he believed James had been at the shop
shortly before the slaying, but police abandoned the lead when James denied
Six months later, Melendez and a second man, John Berrien, were arrested
based on another man's claim Melendez had confessed to the killing.
The charges against Berrien were reduced to accessory after the fact. In
deal with prosecutors, he agreed to testify and was given probation.
Before the trial, Melendez's original defense attorney obtained a taped
statement from James who admitted to being there when Baker was killed.
James made the same admission to a Florida Department of Law
Enforcement agent and a state attorney's investigator, but those admissions
were not disclosed to the defense.
James was called as a witness, but invoked his Fifth Amendment right against
Four witnesses testified Melendez was elsewhere the evening of the killing
that his accuser had a grudge against him. Jurors weren't told of the
checkered pasts of the men who testified against Melendez.
James was murdered in 1986; his killer served five years for manslaughter.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld Melendez's death sentence, although in
1986 opinion then Justice Rosemary Barkett said after reviewing the evidence
against Melendez that she feared an innocent man would be killed.
In 1999 McClain was working on a federal appeal of Melendez's case and
contacted the original defense attorney, now a circuit court judge in Polk
The judge had recently found the original transcript of his interview with
James. It proved to be enough evidence to win Melendez a new trial.
Original version at: http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/apnews/stories/010302/D7GQ8SJO0.html
In an opinion highly critical
of a Polk County prosecutor, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer
overturned Melendez's murder conviction and ruled prosecutors must try Melendez again if they want to
keep him in prison. Fleischer concluded, however, that new evidence has "seriously damaged" the
A jury in 1984 convicted
Melendez, now 50, of shooting a beauty salon owner, Delbert Baker, in the
as he begged for his life.
Prosecutors had no physical
evidence linking Melendez to the murder, but they called two witnesses
who pointed to Melendez. One witness, a jail inmate, testified that Melendez admitted to the killing. The
other said he drove Melendez to the victim's beauty salon around the time of the killing.
Fleischer wrote that prosecutors
withheld evidence that "seriously undermines" the credibility of both
witnesses. The withheld evidence supports the defense's theory that another man committed the murder,
the judge said.
In her ruling, Fleischer
discussed at length the duty of prosecutors to disclose information favorable
The prosecutor, Hardy Pickard,
withheld notes of interviews he conducted with key witnesses, and kept
police reports about the key witness' conduct secret. Prosecutors in Polk County had a practice of
issuing secret subpoenas to hide investigative work from defense lawyers, testimony showed.
"The court now has a substantial
amount of additional evidence before it that supports the defendant's
theory of defense and trial strategy, but which was not presented to the jury," Fleischer wrote.
Melendez's attorney, Martin McClain, called the prosecutor's behavior "shocking.
"The system is not premised
on the notion that the prosecutor wants to win, but that he wants justice
be done," McClain said. "The way this was done is not consistent with that notion."
In November, a federal judge
in Fort Lauderdale suggested that the same prosecutor intentionally misled
a jury to win a death sentence in another Polk murder.
Pickard and lawyers with
the Attorney General's Office, which handled the appeal, could not be reached
for comment Wednesday. They have 30 days to decide whether to appeal Fleischer's ruling.
Original version at: http://www.oranous.com/innocence/JuanMelendez/cites.htm
Juan Roberto Melendez, born
in Brooklyn, New York in 1951 and raised in Puerto Rico, has spent the last
seventeen years on Florida's death row. If it weren't for the tenacity of
his legal team at Capital Collateral Representative over the past fifteen
years, Melendez, also known to the state as DC# 046466, would now be a prime
candidate for a death warrant. Few people would have paid attention to his
execution. It might have made the headlines for a news cycle or 2. Most people would have presumed the state wouldn't have executed him unless he was guilty. In today's vengeance-driven climate, many would believe he got what he deserved. Death penalty supporters would have been glad to see him die, but wouldn't be completely satisfied; they'd likely complain that it took too long from the time Melendez was convicted to when he was executed.
Instead of this disastrous scenario, Juan Melendez may soon walk off of death row as a free man. Melendez had been on Florida's death row since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's 2nd term as president. In 1984, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. He has spent 17 of his 50 years on this planet in prison for a crime he didn't commit. What is especially disturbing about this case is that it appears that there was little doubt about Melendez's innocence from the very beginning.
On September 13, 1983, Delbert Baker was found dead at his Auburndale, Florida beauty school. He had been shot three times, his throat had been cut, and his expensive gold jewelry was missing. Vernon James, a man seen at the beauty school just before Baker's murder "was not pursued," according to a handout prepared earlier this year by Melendez's defense team. The defense charges that "the crime scene was mishandled, a blood sample was destroyed, and other evidence was ignored."
In 1984, David Falcon, contacted
Florida law enforcement officials claiming 1he knew who killed Baker. Here
is the defense team's account: "Falcon aspired to become a confidential
informant for local law enforcement and he also held a personal grudge against
Juan [Melendez]. Falcon claimed Juan had confessed to the killing, but he
did not know basic details such as where the crime had occurred.
Falcon also implicated another Lakeland man, John Berrien [who] was picked up and, after being threatened with the death penalty, told multiple stories riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Berrien finally wove a tale that was acceptable to authorities saying he had driven Juan to the beauty school around the time of the killing. "According to Berrien, Juan had been armed with a .38 caliber firearm that day and later described jewelry he'd taken in the robbery. Berrien also claimed his
cousin, George Berrien, had gone into the school with Juan that day. No weapon or jewelry was ever recovered. No physical evidence was found in Berrien's car, in which Juan and George had allegedly made their escape from the blood-deluged crime scene. George Berrien denied his cousin's story, testified on behalf of Juan's defense, and this supposed co-perpetrator was never even charged. John Berrien was sentenced to 2 years of house arrest as an accessory to first-degree murder after the fact."
Melendez went on trial in
September, 1984. Falcon and Berrien were the key prosecution witnesses.
Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Melendez to
the crime and that he had an alibi -- he was with a married girlfriend
the night of the murder -- he was found guilty of murder in the 1st degree
and armed robbery. On September 21, 1984, the Court sentenced Melendez to
death. A month before the Melendez trial began, another man, Vernon James,
confessed to the murder of Delbert Baker. A tape-recorded confession was
made in the presence of Melendez's defense investigator and attorney. In
that statement, James admitted "he had been at the beauty school when Baker
was murdered by two other men and [he] declar[ed] that Juan Melendez had
not been anywhere near the scene of the crime. "James was prepared to testify
to this fact, but decided to invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against
self-incrimination when called to the stand (though a cell-mate did testify
that James had confessed his involvement). And due to rulings regarding hearsay
evidence in the case, the taped statement was never
shown to the judge or jury and was only recently discovered by Juan's post-conviction attorneys."
On December 5, 2001, 18 years
after Baker was murdered and 17 years after, Melendez was convicted and
sentenced to death, Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer granted Juan Melendez
a new trial. One of the most important items leading to the Judge's ruling
was the unearthing of Vernon James' taped confession. In the summer of 2000,
Rosa Greenbaum began working the case for Capital Collateral Representative
(CCR). CCR is a public defender for those who have been sentenced to death
in the northern region of Florida. They take over after the death sentence
and conviction has been affirmed on direct appeal. "This next stage," according
to Greenbaum, "is referred to as 'Postconviction' and, unlike
direct appeal attorneys, we are allowed to bring up non-record violations such as withholding of exculpatory evidence and newly discovered evidence -- the grounds on which Fleischer based her
ruling." CCR has been working on the Melendez case since 1988. Greenbaum contacted the trial defense investigator, Cody Smith, and hesubsequently got in touch with defense attorney Roger Alcott. After much searching they were able to find the transcript of the confession of Vernon James. According to the Judge's order, "Mr. Alcott stated that he did not specifically recall whether he provided the
transcript to the prosecution pursuant to the rules of discovery, but assumed that he would have done so. Additionally, although Mr. Alcott acknowledged that he had conducted the taped interview of Vernon James prior to trial, he testified that he did not know if he had provided a copy of the transcript to collateral counsel prior to the time he found it in his old files in August or September of 2000. He was certain, however, that he did not intentionally withhold it from them." And the state attorney, Hardy Pickard, testified that he had been in possession of the transcript since the original trial.
In addition to the taped
statement, Melendez' attorneys presented a dozen witnesses at 2 separate
hearings who testified that Vernon James had made incriminating statements
over the years regarding his involvement in Baker's murder, and that he had
indicated numerous times that the wrong men were paying for the crime. According
to the Miami Herald, "[Judge] Fleischer found that [John] Berrien's trial
testimony repeatedly contradicted the sworn statement he gave prosecutor Hardy Pickard during an interview -- a statement Pickard failed to disclose to either the defense or the jury. "Furthermore, wrote the judge, Pickard misled the jury about [David] Falcon's reason for testifying against Melendez, saying that Falcon had 'nothing to gain by his testimony.'' Falcon escaped charges for violently breaking
into a residence, in exchange for his testimony." At the time of Judge Fleischer's ruling, Hardy Pickard was unavailable for comment. (You can read Juan Melendez's story in his own words.)
A grim reality
There are currently about
3,700 inmates on state and federal death rows, which according to
Department of Justice statistics is up from about 3,600 in 2000. In mid-December,
the New York Times reported that "for the 2nd year in a row, the number of
executions declined across the country, a pattern partly attributable to
the ebb and flow of the appeals process yet one that punctuates a year in
many states re-examined the fairness of capital punishment." Vincent Edward Cooks, executed in Texas, December 12, "became the 66th inmate in the nation put to death, down from 85 in 2000 and 98 in 1999. This is the 1st time since executions resumed in 1977 that the number of executions has fallen in consecutive years." The New York Times: "Nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans
support the death penalty, though that support has gradually eroded. A Gallup poll this spring showed that 65 % of Americans supported capital punishment, down from about 80 % in 1994. Polls also show that Americans are increasingly concerned about how the death penalty is administered, particularly in
light of prominent cases of freed death row inmates. An ABC News poll in April found that 51 % of respondents supported a nationwide moratorium on executions while a commission studied the fairness of the death penalty."
The Death Penalty Information
Center claims that since 1973, 98 people in 22 states have been freed from
death row. Over the past several years, the number of cases of wrongly convicted
death row inmates who were later found to be innocent and were released have
been occurring with increasing frequency. Peter Limone served 33 years in
a Massachusetts prison before he was released earlier this year. James Richardson
was released from Florida's death row in 1989 after 21 years. Charles Fain
served 18 years in Idaho. Dennis Williams did 17 years in Illinois. Freddie
Pitt and Wilbert Lee each served 12 years on death row in Florida before they
were released. And also in Florida, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer after fourteen
years on death row-just months before DNA testing of the evidence (which
the state had successfully fought for years) fully exonerated him. (Florida
leads the nation in convicting and then freeing innocent people.) When you
read the stories of these men, they make you question how many thousands of
others may be in prison because of an overzealous prosecutor or convicted
on the basis of falsified testimony and phony evidence. And how many innocent
people have been executed down through the years? I'm also wondering how the
Juan Melendez's prosecutor, Hardy Pickard,
spent the past 17 years. For more on the death penalty, see www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innoc.html
For now, Juan Melendez will
remain on death row until the Florida Supreme Court affirms Judge Fleischer's
ruling, which could take a long time Rosa Greenbaum told me. "Presuming
the state appeals, and they undoubtedly will, they have 30 days from December
5th to file notice of appeal,"
she said. Greenbaum doubts there will be a retrial because the state doesn't have any evidence or witnesses. "In the past," she said, "in Polk County, they have allowed others in Juan's position to plead no contest to 2nd degree murder, time served." Juan Melendez has siblings, aunts and a mother who is in her seventies and living in Maunabo, Puerto Rico, in a house by the water that he helped build for her at age 14. According to Greenbaum, he writes a lot of letters and he is not bitter or angry.
"He seems to have found solace in the knowledge that he is innocent and the hope that a court might one day agree," she said. "Now that that has happened, I think he is floating on air -- and dreaming of Puerto Rico." "The most important thing to remember," she added, "is that this outcome does not show that the system works, as death penalty supporters might claim. If not for a courageous judge, witnesses who selflessly showed up and told the truth, the simple dumb luck of locating the taped confession of Vernon James after all these years, and the surprising fact that James told lots of people what he'd done, this story would likely have a very different ending." source: Bill Berkowitz is a
longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right, Dec.23
Original version at: http://www.patrickcrusade.org/Juan_Melendez.html
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