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Florida Death Row Inmate Is Freed

January 04, 2002|From Associated Press

RAIFORD, Fla. — A man who spent 17 years on death row was freed Thursday after prosecutors decided not to pursue charges in a murder case that fell apart after another man confessed.

"They can give me a billion dollars and they cannot pay for what they did to me," Juan Melendez told reporters in the parking lot minutes after being released from Union Correctional Institution.

Melendez, 50, was convicted of killing a cosmetology school owner in 1983. His sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, but a transcript of another man's confession was discovered two years ago.

Defense attorneys say Vernon James, now deceased, confessed to at least four investigators or attorneys, but none of the admissions was admitted as evidence. A judge last month said Melendez deserved a new trial.

Polk County prosecutors decided against another trial because one of the two witnesses against Melendez has recanted and the other is dead, said Chip Thullbery, administrative assistant state attorney.

"That leaves us, frankly, with nothing to proceed on," Thullbery said.

During his years on death row, Melendez said, he never despaired.

"I'm innocent. I should not die here. I should not spend the rest of my life in prison," he said. "Without hope, I probably would have committed suicide."

Thullbery, who was not involved in the original prosecution, offered no apologies for the way the case was handled.

"You have a lot of people looking back over a lot of different years and you have somebody in prison who decided to recant his testimony," he said. "We can't try the case now, but it certainly was a case that needed to be tried then."

"I'm happy to finally have it over and to have Juan released," said Marty McClain, an attorney who pursued Melendez's appeal. "But it really is a sad day that the system allowed this to happen and for it to go on so long."

Melendez said he plans to return to his native Puerto Rico and live with his 73-year-old mother.

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