Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon (born May 24,
1951) is a public speaker and human rights activist who was wrongly
convicted of murder and spent over 17 years on Death Row. He was
released from prison on January 3, 2002, making him the 97th Death Row
inmate in the United States to be exonerated and released from prison
Melendez was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1951, then
fled to Puerto Rico when he was 8 years old to escape an abusive
stepfather. At the age of 17 he returned to the US and eventually
raised a family with his common-law wife.
In 1974 Melendez was arrested in Florida for an
armed robbery and spent over 6 years in prison. He then returned to
life as a migrant farmer until FBI agents arrested him in Pennsylvania
at the age of 33. He was charged for the 1983 Florida murder of
Delbert 'Mr. Del' Baker in his Auburndale beauty salon, a man Melendez
claims to have never met.
In his own defense, Mr. Melendez testified that he
was with a woman named Dorothy Rivera on the evening of September 13,
1983 –an alibi which was bolstered by the testimony of four witnesses.
There was also no physical evidence tying Mr.
Melendez to the murder scene. However, the odds seemed stacked against
Despite a lack of physical evidence, Melendez was
convicted largely on testimony of David Luna Falcon, an informant with
a criminal record and whose parents were said to have had a “falling
out” with Melendez. Witnesses testified during Melendez’s trial that
Falcon had a grudge against Melendez and had threatened to kill him,
prior to reporting to the police that Melendez had confessed his
involvements in Delbert Baker’s murder.
There was also some crucial testimony which was
omitted at trial, such as:
The accounts of a witness named Terry Barber;
Barber had dropped by Delbert Baker’s workplace on the evening of
the murder and had reported to police that he saw two males, a man
named Vernon James and a man whom Barber knew simply as “Bobo”. He
did not report ever seeing Melendez. Police apparently dropped that
lead when both of the males in question denied that they were at
Baker’s place of business on the night in question.
To compound Melendez’s woes, he was also unable to
read or write English and was said to have a 9th grade education level.
They never give me an interpreter. At that time, if
I say five words in English, three of them would have been cuss words
– Juan Melendez, ,‘’Oakland Tribune’’, Apr
In the end, Melendez was found guilty and sentenced
Appeals and release
Melendez's conviction and death sentence were
upheld on appeal three times by the Florida Supreme Court. 16 years
after his conviction, Melendez was nearing the end of his appeals when
his current attorneys conducted a search through the files of Melendez’s
original defense lawyer and discovered the taped confession made by
They were also able to locate other witnesses who
recalled that Vernon James had confessed to the murder before he died.
In light of the new evidence, Justice Barbara
Fleischer determined that Melendez was entitled to a new trial. In
turn, the state of Florida declined to prosecute a second time since
the key witness at the original trial, David Falcon, was now dead and
another witness for the prosecution had since recanted his testimony.
Melendez spent a total of 17 years, eight months
and one day of incarceration before finally being released from the
Union Correctional Institution on January 3, 2002. Upon release he
received $100 compensation from the state. He has not received any
further compensation, nor an official apology from the state of
Melendez now lives in New Mexico and also tours the
world to tell his personal story and to discuss the issues surrounding
the death penalty.
Summary of Juan Melendez's Case
On September 13, 1983, after closing his school of
cosmetology Delbert Baker was murdered. His body was found at about
8:30 pm. after his male roommate notified the police because Mr. Baker
was late coming home. Some of Mr. Baker's jewelry was missing,
although the days receipts were still in his briefcase. Mr. Baker was
homosexual and had been known to have encounters at the school after
closing. The Medical Examiner estimated that the time of death was
approximately 7:30 p.m.
Terry Barber had stopped by the school at a little
before 6:00 pm. The door was unlocked and he walked in. Mr. Baker came
out of the backroom a little surprised. Mr. Barber saw that Mr. Baker
had company in the back. He told the police that he believed that
Vernon James and his friend known as Bobo were the two males he saw in
backroom. However, the police abandoned that lead when Bobo denied
that he and James were there.
Instead, in March, 1984, Juan Melendez was arrested
and charged with first degree murder and robbery on the basis of David
Luna Falcon's claim that Mr. Melendez had confessed the murder while
they were doing cocaine together. In late 1983, Mr. Melendez had
befriended Mr. Falcon's father and stepmother. In December of 1983, Mr.
Falcon's father went to Puerto Rico and brought Mr. Falcon back with
him because he was in trouble there. Mr. Melendez and Mr. Falcon did
not get along. Mr. Melendez had a falling out with Mr. Falcon's
parents. Various people have reported that Mr. Falcon announced his
intention to get Mr. Melendez. Then in February, Mr. Falcon went to
the police claiming that Mr. Melendez had told him that John Berrien
drove him to Mr. Baker's and that he, Juan, and a third person went
inside and killed Mr. Baker. At trial, Falcon claimed that after this
conversation with Mr. Melendez, Mr. Falcon talked to people on the
street and gathered information regarding Mr. Baker's homicide, only
then did he go to the police.
Mr. Melendez and John Berrien were subsequently
arrested. The charges against John Berrien were reduced to accessory
after the fact to which he pled no contest and agreed to testify
against Mr. Melendez in exchange for the possibility of probation as a
sentence depending upon his testimony. George Berrien, the other
person that John Berrien said accompanied Mr. Melendez into Mr. Del's,
was never charged.
The State's theory of the case at trial was that Mr.
Melendez, John Berrien and George Berrien drove in John Berrien's car
to the victim's beauty salon in the late afternoon of September 13,
1983. John Berrien testified that he dropped off Mr. Melendez and
George Berrien in the vicinity of the beauty salon and returned for
them two hours later. Neither Mr. Melendez nor George Berrien had any
blood on them or their clothes. The next day, according to John
Berrien, he drove George Berrien and Mr. Melendez to the train station,
where George Berrien boarded a train for Wilmington, Delaware. At the
train station, Mr. Melendez purportedly handed George Berrien some
jewelry and a gun which George Berrien was supposed to sell in
This theory rested solely on the testimony of John
Berrien and David Luna Falcon. No physical evidence connected Mr.
Melendez to the victim's death or supported the theory regarding his
participation in the offense.
In his defense, Mr. Melendez provided an alibi.
Four witnesses testified that in the late afternoon through the
evening of September 13, 1983, Mr. Melendez was with Dorothy Rivera.
Mr. Melendez even testified in his own behalf. George Berrien, the
uncharged co-defendant, was also called by the defense to refute the
allegations. Other witnesses testified that Mr. Falcon had a grudge
against Mr. Melendez and had threatened to kill him before coming
forward with Mr. Melendez's alleged confession.
Meanwhile, Vernon James had been incarcerated on
other charges. Prior to trial, Mr. Melendez' defense counsel, Roger
Alcott, interviewed him and obtained a tape statement from James
indicating that the two men he went to Mr. Del's had killed Del Baker.
James also told another inmate, Roger Mims, that he and Mr. Baker had
been having a sexual relationship, and that on the day of the killing,
he and two other men had killed Mr. Baker. The defense listed Roger
Mims and Vernon James, as witnesses. An FDLE agent interviewed Mr.
James with this information, and Mr. James admitted his presence at
the homicide. A State Attorney investigator conducted yet another
interview of James in which he admitted involvement in the murder.
However, this interview was not disclosed to the defense. Vernon James
invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. The State belittle
Roger Mims testimony as a desperate last minute fabrication. And the
judge refused to allow the defense to call the law enforcement officer
to whom Mr. James had admitted being there because the testimony was
hearsay. Defense counsel failed to offer his interview as
corroboration. So, the jury only heard a jail inmate, Roger Mims, say
that Vernon James had confessed; it did not hear that Vernon James had
told an FDLE agent, Mr. Melendez' defense attorney, and a State
Attorney investigator that he was at Mr. Del's when his two companions
killed Del Baker
On the basis of the State's highly suspect case, Mr.
Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death. John Berrien received
two years probation. George Berrien was never charged with any offense,
although he testified at the trial as a defense witness and thus was
certainly available to authorities, and although the State argued at
trial that he was "equally guilty" and "equally involved . . . in
committing the murder." And, Vernon James was murdered in 1986. David
Falcon also died in the late 1980's.
Mr. Falcon and John Berrien were crucial witnesses
for the State. However, substantial information undermining the
credibility of Mr. Falcon and John Berrien existed which the jury did
not know. The jury did not know that David Luna Falcon received $5000
for his testimony against Mr. Melendez. In addition, the jury did not
hear that Mr. Falcon had been serving a forty-five year sentence in
Puerto Rico for a homicide conviction. After escaping from prison and
being apprehended Falcon agreed to testify against individuals in a
New Jersey murder trial. After he testified, Mr. Falcon's sentence was
reduced and he was released from prison.
As to John Berrien's testimony, the jury never
heard that John Berrien told the police several stories that were
inconsistent with the testimony he provided at trial.
In 1994, Mr. Melendez presented four witnesses
during his postconviction appeals, who testified that Vernon James had
confessed to participating in Delbert Baker's murder. One of the
witnesses was John Berrien's attorney in whom Vernon James confided
prior to Mr. Melendez' trial. Additionally at that hearing, John
Berrien recanted much of his inculpatory testimony against Mr.
Melendez. However, the presiding judge was dubious of the testimony
and denied relief.
In 2000 while working on a federal habeas petition,
Mr. Melendez' collateral counsel contacted Mr. Melendez' trial counsel
who had just been appointed to a judgeship. While moving boxes, he
discovered the transcript of his pretrial interview of Vernon James
which he had failed to previously provide Mr. Melendez' collateral
counsel. Armed with this transcript, Mr. Melendez returned to state
court seeking a new trial. Several other witnesses were located who
recalled that Vernon James had confessed the murder before he died. An
evidentiary hearing was held in May of 2001. On December 6, 2001, the
presiding judge ruled that Mr. Melendez was entitled to a new trial.