If you are one of our faithful readers, then you know that Juan Roberto Melendez, the 99th death row exoneree, was in Tennessee last weekend to give the keynote address to the Tennessee Student Conference Against the Death Penalty. He also told his story at a house party in Nashville on Friday night. And what a story it is.
Juan was convicted of a 1984 murder and armed robbery in Florida and spent 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day on that state’s death row before evidence that the prosecutor had before his trial, evidence including the confession of the true killer and 16 documents corroborating that confession, came to light and led to his exoneration. To hear Juan’s story, a story of loss, pain, and struggle, but also of hope and healing, is to be reminded in the most vivid way that the death penalty has frighteningly high human cost.
People have said that the 123 exonerations from death row prove that the system works, that errors are corrected. I would hazard a guess that none of these people have ever met Juan , who, after nearly 18 years was released with $100, a t-shirt, and not so much as an apology from the state of Florida. The system working would not take 17 years, 8 months, and 1 day of a man’s life away without so much as a thought. And, as Juan reminds us, he was not saved by the system, but in spite of it.
I can’t wait to bring Juan back to Tennessee at some point, so more and more people can understand, on the most intimate, personal, in your gut level, how dangerously and fatally flawed the death penalty system is. One Juan Melendez is too many. But there are over 100 stories just like his.
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