6445 days

6445 days…the approximate amount of time that Juan Melendez spent on Florida’s death row for a crime that he did not commit. Take a second and soak that in. How would you feel if you were in jail or prison for something you didn’t do? How would you feel after a day, a week, a month? I can tell you that I would be as ornery as a crocodile.

Juan had a grand total of 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day stolen away from his life and he was in Jackson, Tennessee this past weekend to tell folks about it. We also had a great article kicking off our Jackson campaign which can be found HERE, and which I will talk about after I talk about Juan.

As I was leaving my place early Sunday morning to meet up with Juan, I have to be honest with you, I was a bit nervous. It’s not every day that you meet someone who was on death row for nearly as long as you’ve been alive. What do you say to this man? How can you possibly begin to empathize? Will he take me seriously as an abolitionist? Answers to these questions, along with invaluable life lessons were provided to me in the 24 hours I was with Juan.

I met up with Juan for breakfast and I took him somewhere to get grits and eggs. “Every time I’m in the south, it has to be grits and eggs,” he said. After breakfast, we sat down and he lit up a cigarette. Although I had been somewhat pensive up until this point, I saw this as an opportunity to ask my first question about his time on death row. “Did you have any good friends that died?” To anyone that knows death row, the answer is obvious, but I am a death row newbie so I was eager to hear his response. Before he began to give me an answer, you could see his face shift a little and his eyes saddened just a bit. He took a staggered draw and told me, “we were all brothers on death row, I learned English from murderers and rapists, when one went down or committed suicide I was deeply saddened, and they’ll stay with me until I’m gone.” Immediately I was taken aback, how can an innocent man befriend these guilty men I naively thought to myself? But Juan didn’t see them as murders, rapists, as condemned men. Juan saw them as human beings—human beings that had feelings, cried, felt pain, and shared their deepest thoughts together.

All too often, we relegate the men and women on death row to animals. Conversely, proponents of the death penalty think that “hey, they’re still alive, they still get to see their family members, even on death row.” It is true, they are alive, but they aren’t living the kind of life that I would describe as peachy. Death row inmates are stripped away of what makes them human. There was one thing in particular that lit a fire in my soul. I am very into physical fitness and I work out at least 5 times a week. Juan told me that while on death row they received 4 hours a week, 2 hours on Monday and Wednesday, to go to the yard. This was of course barring inclement weather which meant one single cloud in the sky. If that occurred, there would be no yard that day and the time was lost. I’d like to ask those who support the death penalty, support death row, or those who think that their time is easy to tell Juan to his face that his 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day on death row was easy. Have you held a man dying in your arms because the medical care was non existent? Have you been in a shower with the fear of being raped? Have you been stripped of your ability to make human contact with the ones you love?

Now I’d like to ask, can you support a policy that takes the risk of putting an innocent man in prison for nearly 18 years? Questions like that, along with questions about cost, deterrence, racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and much more were answered through Juan’s story. His story is a picture perfect example of the inequities and injustices that are pervasive in our capital punishment policy. Juan was poor, he didn’t speak English, he was implicated by a police informant with a vendetta, and so much more. What was it that freed Juan you may ask? A taped confession by the real killer that was purposefully withheld by the prosecutors was what did the trick.

This is why jurisdictions in Tennessee are passing moratorium resolutions calling on the Governor. We should stop killing people at least until the study commission has found its results. Shelby County and Davidson County have passed resolutions and now Jackson, TN is stepping up to the plate. It is with great enthusiasm and vigor that a strong contingent of folks including the NAACP, Jackson faith leaders of multiple denominations, and the Jackson TCASK chapter held a press conference and put on a speaking engagement at St. Mary’s for Juan to share his story. Both were a huge success and the article is a direct result of that group’s hard work. A major highlight in the article was a very supportive statement by City Councilman Johnny Dodd.

Before we departed I told Juan, “they may have taken away 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day from you, but I bet in these past 5 years you’ve lived more than most do in a lifetime.” Juan nodded his head gently but said “amigo, I thank you for your kind compliment, but it’ll be hard for me to forget those years, it’s hard for me to sleep with the footsteps of the guards still in my head, it’s hard for me to write because of the arthritis from the chains, so let’s make sure no one, not one soul, has to go through what I did.”

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