Christine Stuart photo
Juan Melendez shares his story (Christine Stuart photo)

“I wasn’t saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system,” said Juan Melendez, who was exonerated after spending 17 years, eight months, and a day on Florida’s death row.

Melendez was speaking Tuesday night to members of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty at the Universalist Church in West Hartford.

“I was scared to die for a crime I did not commit,” the exonerated death row inmate told the organization at its annual meeting.

Melendez said there were times he had all but given up hope.

About 10 years into his murder sentence, Melendez said he gave four stamps to a runner—an inmate who was not on death row—in exchange for a trash bag that he could use to hang himself. After tying the noose Melendez decided that he was tired and should lay down in his bunk before going through with it.

As he drifted off to sleep Melendez said he had some beautiful dreams. It was those dreams of Puerto Rico and his mother that saved him. When he woke up he took the trash bag and flushed it down the toilet. Years later his lawyer told him she had to give up his case and was handing it over to a team of lawyers.

“I finally got the dream team,” Melendez said.

In Melendez’s case it wasn’t a discovery of DNA that set him free, it was a cassette tape of the police informant confessing to the murder.

As he walked down death row toward freedom, Melendez said he was sad to leave behind his friends, many of whom he says were innocent. He said they cheered and applauded for him as he walked to the “door that leads to freedom.”

A gaggle of reporters waited for his release. Melendez said they asked what he wanted to do.

“I want to see the moon, see the stars, walk on grass …” Melendez recalled, adding that he’s still a dreamer and that he hopes he’ll see the death penalty abolished.

Melendez is not unlike the three men exonerated in Connecticut for crimes they never committed.

The Connecticut Innocence Project

Karen Goodrow, director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, said she’s always been interested in wrongful convictions. And while she says she’s not the smartest person in the legal world, she can be the most persistent.

Christine Stuart photo
Karen Goodrow (Christine Stuart photo)

It was Goodrow’s persistence that led to the creation of the Connecticut Innocence Project.

The project, which helped exonerate James Tillman, Miguel Roman, and Kenneth Ireland, started in a coffee shop where she would meet with Brian Carlow, another public defender, and spend a few hours a week going through old case files.

One of the first people they heard from back in Dec. 2005 was a friend of Mr. Tillman’s.

She said one of the first lessons they learned was that evidence isn’t always kept in the courthouse. In order to get the DNA evidence tested again, they first needed to find it. After tracking down several leads they called Hartford legal aide and a woman there had box marked “Tillman.” Goodrow recalled Tuesday that the woman said it’s probably nothing you want.

When Goodrow picked up the box she discovered it contained a smaller box inside. The box was from a former DNA lab in New York. In that crucial box were the black stockings and dress. And the rest is history, Tillman walked out of the courthouse on June 6, 2006, and a year later was given the largest award in the country for his wrongful conviction.

“I want to be James when I grow up,” Goodrow said Tuesday.

As a result of Tillman’s exoneration, the legislature ended up funding the Connecticut Innocence Project, Goodrow said.

Just last month a Connecticut judge dismissed rape and murder charges against Kenneth Ireland, who had spent two decades in prison before DNA testing showed he could not have committed the crimes.

Next Steps

Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said if Ireland was just two years older when he was convicted of rape and murder then he could have faced the death penalty. He said Connecticut doesn’t want what happened to Cameron Willingham of Texas to happen here.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly murdering his three young daughters in 1991 by setting his house on fire. This year a piece in “The New Yorker” demonstrated that there was no evidence that the house fire was intentionally set.

“We have time right now to abolish the death penalty so we never get in a situation where it’s too late,” Jones said.

Melendez add: “You can never release an innocent man from the grave.”

Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven (Christine Stuart photo)

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who led this year’s ultimately unsuccessful fight to abolish the death penalty at the state legislature, said he was frustrated when everyone told him it wouldn’t get anywhere. Not only did the bill get out of committee, but it passed the House and the Senate before it was vetoed by the governor.

“I think anything is possible,” Holder-Winfield said.

He said he was happy the bill got as far as it did, but was very disappointed at the same time. He asked advocates in the room to remember that “we’re at war.”

“We lose because we act as if we’re not at war,” he said. “The death penalty is wrong and it needs to be abolished.”