It took Juan Roberto Melendez 17 years, eight months, and one day in a 3 by 6 cell infested with roaches and rats on death row to be released for a crime he did not commit. On December 1 he shared his story with over 150 Fairfield University students.

Melendez is one of the 138 known men and women who have been placed on death row, then later found to be innocent. It will never be known how many of the 1,224 men and women who were executed due to the death penalty were innocent themselves.

It was 1984 and just another beautiful day in Florida when Juan Roberto Melendez was sitting beneath an apple tree. A few minutes later he was bombarded cop cars surrounding him shouting his name. He dropped to the ground and as they demanded he reveal his tattoo on his left arm and expose his missing tooth.

The police officers escorted Melendez to jail where he was charged with first-degree murder and motive of armed robbery.

“My mama did not raise no murderers,” said Melendez. All along he knew of his innocence and had entrusted his defender with his life. His public defender assured Melendez that he would be going home and not to worry.

When Melendez’s trial was brought before the court he looked at the jurors, consisting of 11 white men and women along with one black woman, and not one Hispanic.

“The system is unfair and racist,” Melendez said. 80 percent of those who are convicted and put on death row, committed a crime that involved a white victim. After enduring many states of depression and contemplations of suicide, Melendez attributes his sanity to God and his mother.

His favorite and most inspirational letter he received from his mother read, “Son, I know you’re innocent and God knows you’re innocent and one day he will set you free.”

After approximately 6,446 days Melendez was set free through the help of his three new lawyers and one investigator’s discovery of a box in his previous public defender’s office. In the box was a confession tape of the real killer as well as a document that provided written evidence against the actual killer.

Melendez said he discovered that the same man who patted him on his back and promised him a trip home kept this evidence from the court even when he was in possession of the information a month before his trial concluded.

As soon as Melendez was released from prison with his $100, new pair of pants and a t-shirt, he was greeted with reporters ranging everywhere from, “ABC, NBC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and every news station of the alphabet.”

Melendez returned to Puerto Rico to see his mother and was considered to be a hero. Ultimately he knew he wanted to come back to the United States to begin his work at looking to eliminate the death penalty across the nation.

Melendez’s story had overwhelmingly positive reactions from the student body. “I thought Juan’s story was so interesting. I actually felt his emotions while he was making his speech about his experiences in death row. I can also tell how passionate he is about his dreams of ending the death penalty in Connecticut,” said Carly Beyer class of ’14.

After the presentation Melendez and Bo Chamberlin, a Connecticut committee representative for the abolishing of the death penalty, encouraged the students to sign a petition to eliminate the death penalty in Connecticut.

In Connecticut alone it costs $4 million to fund the death penalty. In its history there has only been one case of a man voluntarily asked for the death penalty.

Melendez said, “There is always the risk of killing the innocent. You can always release an innocent man from jail, but you can’t raise an innocent person from the grave.”

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