Juan Melendez Testifies in Support of New Mexico Civil Rights Act
Written Testimony in Favor of New Mexico HB4
March 9, 2021
Juan Roberto Melendez
Member, Witness to Innocence
Wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1984. Exonerated in 2002.
Dear honored members of the New Mexico House of Representatives,
My name is Juan Roberto Melendez. I am a resident of Albuquerque, and I spent 17 years, eight months, and one day on death row in Florida for a crime I did not commit. I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death due to the negligence and misconduct of government officials. Though I endured the torture of death row and nearly lost my life, the government officials involved have never been held accountable for their actions.
The mishaps and misdeeds in the case that led to my wrongful conviction began six months before I was even arrested, when investigators chose not to follow-up on two potential suspects identified by a witness in a murder case, presumably because one of the men identified was a police informant.
Instead, prosecutors relied on a false accusation by a convicted felon known to have a personal grudge against me. He pointed to me and my co-defendant in exchange for a $5,000 reward. When this star witness was implicated in another crime, police from my case protected him by dissuading the victims from pressing charges.
In addition to the perjured testimony of the star witness, my co-defendant also lied on the stand to escape his own death sentence. He later recanted his testimony and said that police had intimidated him and threatened him with the electric chair if he did not testify against me.
I had an airtight alibi, there were four witnesses corroborating my alibi, there was no physical evidence against me and I did not know the man who had been killed. Yet, I was convicted and sentenced to death in a five-day trial.
Sixteen years later, my new investigator discovered a transcript of a taped confession by the real killer. We also found that the state had systematically withheld exculpatory evidence, including statements made by the perpetrator incriminating himself.
My conviction was vacated, and I was saved from the electric chair, but that should not be the end of the story. Once such egregious misconduct was revealed, the wrongdoers should have faced consequences. The lack of accountability sends a dangerous message that such conduct is acceptable, even when an innocent man’s life is at stake.
Now, as a constituent in Albuquerque, I strongly support HB4, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. This act would send a very different message about misconduct. It would help to prevent the abuse of power that can lead to wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences. I believe that HB4 has the potential to motivate law enforcement to conduct the training, oversight and accountability policies needed to eradicate the factors that allow misconduct to take place.
Qualified immunity harms the integrity of our criminal justice process. When it prevents misconduct from being addressed, New Mexicans are at risk of falling victim to abuses of power like I did. By banning qualified immunity as a defense, HB4 protects us all and sends a message that no one is above the law.
When I was exonerated and released from death row in Florida, I received $100, a pair of pants and a shirt. My life was forever altered by the misconduct of the police and prosecutor that sent me to death row. I never received an apology. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act would allow victims like me to have resolution. It would provide the opportunity for restitution to such victims whose lives were destroyed through no fault of their own.
Sadly, my case is not unique. According to a new report released by the Death Penalty Information Center, official misconduct was present in 69% of the cases of innocent people who were sentenced to death and later exonerated in the United States. Of wrongful capital convictions where DNA testing was used to prove innocence, 85.7% also revealed official misconduct. DNA evidence is like the canary in the coal mine and alerts us to what is going undiscovered in countless unknown cases.
The link between official misconduct and innocent people being sentenced to death should be all we need to convince us that New Mexico needs HB4. All four of the innocent men sentenced to death in New Mexico and later exonerated had official misconduct as a contributing factor in their wrongful convictions. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act is an important step toward writing these wrongs and protecting all New Mexicans from such injustice in the future.