Thursday, December 11, 2008

An interview with Juan Melendez

SAN JUAN -- Puerto Rican Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years eight months and one day behind bars awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit, told Efe about life on death row at the state prison in Starke, Florida.

Melendez, who entered the prison in 1984 and was released on Jan. 3, 2002, said he survived because of the fraternal love among the inmates, who offer one another "a shoulder to cry on."

But "the worst thing about being inside is when they execute someone who you've been with for so many years and who's become a relative. First, you feel the buzzing when they turn on the electricity in the electric chair and you know the precise moment of execution because the lights go out and flicker."

Also, you miss your family, "especially around Christmas a person needs family warmth more," recalled the 57-year-old Melendez, who upon being convicted broke off his relationship with his girlfriend by whom he had three daughters "so that they would not go through that suffering."

Melendez reunited with his daughters "when they were grown up and didn't know what had happened," and then he got to know his six grandchildren. Now he lives in New Mexico devoting his time and effort to giving talks against the death penalty.[...]

Melendez said that during his stay on death row, he knew at least five other prisoners awaiting execution who were also innocent. "I studied their cases and there was evidence" of their innocence, he said, adding that capital punishment is not the solution to serious crimes because "there are alternatives," such as being sentenced to life in prison.

"When they take away a person's freedom, they're taking away your life. Prison is no party, you don't have to kill him. Besides, the person can change in prison over the years and end up being someone else. However, the death penalty doesn't settle anything," Melendez insisted.

Regarding Puerto Rico, "which received me like a hero," Melendez said he felt proud because the island's people have always been against accepting the death penalty and its constitution prohibits that form of punishment, but the island's status as a U.S. commonwealth subordinates it in the final analysis to U.S. justice.

"The federal government should respect the constitution of Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico don't want the death penalty but the federal government tries to push it on them," he said.

"For me this is really personal. Seeing that there are people who haven't (experienced) what happened to me, but who are fighting against the death penalty makes me feel really proud," Melendez said. EFE

Taken from "Puerto Rican Jailed for 17 Years On Death Row For Murder He Did Not Commit" - Latin American Harold Tribune

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