Juan Melendez Addresses Class II
by Caitlin Connelly on Friday, February 7th, 2014
On Wednesday, January 29, Juan Roberto Melendez addressed Class II students as this year’s Witness to Innocence speaker. After being wrongly convicted of murder in Florida, MA at thirty-three years old, Melendez spent nearly eighteen years on death row before he was proved innocent on January 2, 2002. Melendez’s release inspired him to share his experience and encourage his listeners to consider and discuss the many layers of capital punishment. Witness to Innocence, an organization working to expose people exonerated from death row, brought this thought-provoking speaker to our community’s students last week.
The bulk of his speech covered Melendez’s story, struggles, and glimpses of hope while confined and awaiting death. While he was determined to “reveal innocence,” Melendez described the trauma of trial and the severe conditions behind bars. During the eighteen years he spent unjustly confined, Melendez struggled with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, as did many prisoners on death row. However, he and those with whom he was close found hope in family, religion, education, and dreams of a free life. “Although it was hard,” Melendez said, “I learned to gain faith.” His strong will helped him overcome the many cruelties of prison and eventually brought him to a free life. “When I got out,” he said, “the first thing I did was kiss the ground,” and he later remarked lightly that the first thing he ate was a Burger King hamburger, which he had been craving while imprisoned.
Today, Melendez believes that, although his time on death row came unjustly, he can now turn his experience into a positive one and make up for the years of his life that he lost. Melendez concludes that he has learned to value family, happiness, and little things in life such as salsa dancing, more and more every day that he is free. He wishes to share his story, inspiring countries and individuals to think about these social issues and the people being affected by them.
After a standing ovation and an enormous amount of concluding questions from Class II students, emotions and deep thinking filled the air — Mr. Juan Melendez certainly provided a strong foundation for good discussion and reflection. Many students found his story inspiring, resonating with aspects of his emotional speech. Elias Peterson (II) said he was especially moved by “the controversial rationales regarding the death penalty snaring innocent people.”
Overall, students reacted positively to the speaker despite his controversial opinions, commending his execution as well as his positive attitude. As part of the junior students’ Social Awareness classes, Melendez provided students and faculty with a chance to make connections between Melendez’s personal experiences and other social topics discussed in the class. The course description of Class II’s required Social Awareness class states that the class “considers how an individual fits within a larger system… and how an individual turns belief in core values into action.” Melendez’s story connects one man, opinionated and charming, to a larger issue, encouraging students to concentrate more closely on the actual individuals involved in such matters in order to forge their own opinions and aid future changes.
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