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Irish Post Column – 28/5/2005

An innocent man from Florida’s death row supported by a Belfast lawyer
speaking in a London building blown up by the IRA. As some would say you
couldn't make it up but that was the scene when Juan Roberto Melendez, who
spent almost 18 years on death row, came to tell of his experiences. He was
accompanied by Belfast born Judi Caruso, a lawyer and director of US based
Voices United for Justice. The meeting took place at St Ethelburga's centre
for reconciliation and peace which was created out of the ashes left when
the IRA bombed Bishopsgate in 1993.

Melendez served 17 years eight months and one day for the murder of beauty
salon owner Delbert Baker.

The story is familiar, Melendez being a man essentially caught in the wrong
place at the wrong time. Originally from Puerto Rico, Melendez came to the
US to pick fruit and make some money. He spoke Spanish and could not read or
write. As a result when his trial happened it to a large degree passed him
by right up to being sent to death row. It was only in prison that he was
able to learn to read, write and speak English due to the help of other
prisoners. He told of his desperation in jail, moved at one point to
consider suicide after a friend had died in his arms.

The case has a number of parallels to miscarriages of justice in the UK with
Melendez suffering due to false testimony from an informer and failure to
disclose information by the prosecution. Melendez told how a tape later
emerged that included confession evidence from the real killer. He remains
convinced that had his legal team not pursued the full appeal process
Florida Governor Jeb Bush would have signed the death warrant to send him to
the electric chair long ago.

For Melendez read Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Judy Ward and the
Maguires, only in the US they go one better and execute innocent people.
Since 1973, some 130 people who have sat on death row in the US have walked
to freedom - a number of innocent people have also been executed. Thankfully the tide appears to be turning against the death penalty. This change is due in large part to the effort of campaigners like Melendez and Judi Caruso. Caruso originally left Belfast to go to the US to become a
professional tennis player. She became semi pro but got more and more
interested in the law. Eventually she changed career path completely, later
qualifying as an attorney. Since then, Caruso has joined with other notable
campaigners such as Sister Helen Prejean, portrayed in the film Dead Man
Walking, to make the case against the death penalty. And it would seem
opinion is now turning. Last September, a poll in the US found 66 per cent
of the public favour abolition if full life imprisonment is in place and
there is restitution to the victims.

There is another parallel here to the struggle to clear the names of those
falsely accused of the IRA bombings in England during the 1970s. In both
situations the final goal looked impossible at the outset. When the families
of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four began campaigning to clear their
names they were dismissed by the media, politicians and legal establishment
but they kept on. The families remained steadfast supported by politicians
like Jeremy Corbyn and Sir John Farr, lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Michael
Mansfield and campaigners like Paul May and John McDonnell. In the end the
pressure told and justice was done. A few years ago it was political suicide
for any politician seeking electoral office to oppose the death penalty, it
was simply a taboo subject, now the mood is changing and if the pressure is
kept up the death penalty will be abolished in the US.

Faith saves innocent man on Death Row - Universe - 29/5/2005

An innocent Catholic man who spent almost 18 years on death row in Florida
for a crime he did not commit has told how his belief in God helped him
survive.
Addressing a meeting at St Ethelbergers Church in London Juan Roberto
Melendez told how close he came to taking his own life after a friend died
in his arms in the prison yard.
" At times I wanted to commit suicide. I wanted out of there. It was hell
and I wanted out of there. A lot of my friends did commit suicide. Every
time I wanted to commit suicide, our creator would send me an awesome
dream—a dream of happier times—a dream of my childhood—a dream of hope: Hope
that one day I would be free," said Mr Melendez. ."The only thing I could
see that was more powerful than the system was the creator."
Mr Melendez served 17 years eight months and one day for the murder of
beauty salon owner Delbert Baker.
Originally from Puerto Rico Mr Melendez came to the US to pick fruit and
make some money. He spoke Spanish and could not read or write. As a result
when his trial happened it to a large degree passed him by right up to being
sent to death row. It was only in prison that Mr Melendez was able to learn
to read, write and speak English.
Since being cleared by the courts in 2002, Mr Melendez has been campaigning
around the world for abolition of the death penalty.
"The death penalty shouldn't exist in any part of the world, it brings too
much collateral damage on both sides to the convict and his family and the
victim," said Mr Melendez. "My mother suffered more than I did but she put
her trust in God."
Mr Melendez stressed how important it was to forgive. "One of the most
important things I learnt was to forgive. I've forgive the prosecutor the
police, all those who did this to me. When you hate you just hurt
yourself.".