Juan Meléndez was 19 in 1983 when he was convicted in Florida of a first-degree murder and armed robbery, only to be cleared after spending 17 years and eight months on death row. A final appeal resulted in the convictions being quashed.
Meléndez on Wednesday told a hushed audience of Université de Montréal students about the ordeal, which turned him into an active campaigner against the death penalty.
His conviction was based on the testimony of a police informant, who was given a plea-bargained lesser charge of being an accessory after the fact even though he had confessed to the killing. When his taped confession was presented to a judge in a neighbouring county along with other discrepancies in the case, she quashed the conviction and ordered a new trial, which was never held because of a lack of evidence.
Meléndez’s appearance at three universities is coordinated by Amnesty International’s francophone branch, part of a worldwide campaign to persuade 58 countries, including the U.S., to abolish the death penalty, which Canada did in 1976.
Meléndez recalled the day of his release when reporters asked him what he wanted to do first. He said:
“I want to see the moon, the stars. I want to walk on the grass, I want to hold a baby in my hands.
“Of course, I said, I want to meet a beautiful woman,” he said, laughing.
He ended with a plea:
“I need all of you to join in the fight because the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary. You can never release an innocent man from the grave.”