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Juan Melendez

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Protect the Innocent: Florida's Governor Must Veto the 'Timely Justice Act'

Posted: 05/16/2013 8:55 am

When I was arrested for a murder I didn't commit, I had alibi witnesses placing me elsewhere at the time of the crime. There was no physical evidence tying me to the bloody crime scene. The only evidence that the state of Florida presented against me were two questionable witnesses: a paid police informant and another who falsely implicated me and others under the threat of the electric chair. In exchange for his testimony against me, he received two years' probation.

My trial took less than a week. I was sentenced to death. I spent nearly 18 years on death row, a traumatic and heartbreaking time for me and my family.

Although my mother prayed that my innocence would one day be proven and I would be released, she also saved money to take my body home to Puerto Rico and bury me there.

I never stopped fighting for my freedom. After 16 years on death row, the case against me finally fell apart when critical evidence was discovered, including a transcript of a taped confession by the real killer, along with other exculpatory evidence that the prosecutor had withheld from my attorneys.

Shockingly, up until this point, the Florida Supreme Court had upheld my conviction and death sentence three times on appeal. I was saved by the grace of God or, as some would say, "pure luck."

Finally, after almost 18 years on death row, the truth about my innocence came out. I was exonerated, and today I am a free man.

What happened to me has happened to many other people as well. Florida leads the nation in exonerations in death penalty cases. Twenty-four innocent people have been freed from our death row, including myself. There can be no question that mistakes have happened in our capital punishment system. It stands to reason that there may be more mistakes in the system still.

In Florida capital cases, the final decision rests with the executive. Governor Rick Scott has the discretion to determine which of the cases on death row should move forward and receive an execution date, and which may benefit from more time and consideration.

New legislation, recently passed by the Florida House and Senate, would change that. The so-called "Timely Justice Act" would remove the Governor's prerogative to set execution dates and replace it with an automatic timeline for all cases.

The "Timely Justice Act" would speed up a system we know has already sent innocent men, like myself, to death row. Some of these prisoners may be men like me, who have exhausted their legal appeals, yet keep trying to find a way to prove their innocence.

In multiple cases of current death row prisoners, we don't know exactly what the legal claims are. Some of the men on Florida's death row ran out of legal options simply because their attorneys missed filing deadlines.

In those instances, no court had the opportunity to evaluate the claims and determine whether they have merit. How can we possibly justify speeding up the execution of prisoners in those cases?

According to logic of the "Timely Justice Act," any prisoner who has exhausted his appeals and been through a clemency process has had every opportunity and is ready for an execution date, regardless of the specific questions and issues that surround his case.

I am living proof that each case is unique and that the system must allow ample time for the truth to emerge.

Given Florida's troubling track record on wrongful convictions, this legislation ensures the unthinkable -- the execution of an innocent person.

Governor Scott has the power to prevent the execution of the wrongfully convicted by vetoing the "Timely Justice Act." Because of my firsthand knowledge that mistakes do happen in our capital punishment system, I pray the governor uses his authority to do so.

Juan Melendez was exonerated in 2002. A national and international speaker on the death penalty, he works with Witness to Innocence.

 
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