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A long forgotten transcript provided the key that freed an innocent man

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A long forgotten transcript provided the key that freed an innocent man


A migrant fruit-picker with a ninth-grade education, born in Brooklyn and who grew up in Puerto Rico, Juan Melendez couldn’t read or write English when he was arrested at age 33 for the 1983 murder of an Auburndale beauty school owner.

Juan Melendez No physical evidence linked Melendez to the murder of Delbert Baker. The state’s case hinged on the testimony of two questionable witnesses, one a paid informant who negotiated a deal in exchange for his testimony.

Melendez was nearing the end of his appeals, when his former defense lawyer, Roger Alcott, was moving boxes of files into his new Polk County judge’s office. He discovered a key transcript detailing a taped jailhouse conversation he’d had with Vernon James, now deceased, who admitted being involved in the murder and said Melendez was not at the scene.

Alcott had said he tried to use the information at trial, but James took the Fifth Amendment on the witness stand and refused to testify, so the evidence was blocked.

When Alcott turned over the transcript to investigator Rosa Greenbaum of the Capital Collateral Representative, the office’s lawyers Martin McClain, Linda McDermott, and Bret Strand had powerful information to work with. They talked to about 20 people James had told about the killing, some of whom said he had confessed.

In December 2001, 13th Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer granted a new trial and blasted the prosecutor for withholding evidence from the defense and jury about James’ incriminating statements. The state declined to prosecute Melendez again.

Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said: “Both the defense attorney and prosecutor had taped and transcribed confessions of the actual killer in the files a month before Juan was convicted and never brought it forward. It was an unbelievable failure of the system. Some say after 17 years, the system worked. I would say the system didn’t work. Juan was exonerated in spite of the system.”

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