On the evening of September 13, 1983, Delbert Baker was found dead in the school of cosmetology he owned in Auburndale, Florida. He had been shot three times, and his throat was slashed. Some of his jewelry was missing.
Early in the police investigation, a witness said that he’d seen two men with Baker shortly before the murder; however, police did not pursue these leads, in part because one of the men, a convicted felon, was also a police informant.
In February 1984, a man named David Luna Falcon told police that Juan Roberto Melendez had shot Delbert Baker. At the time, there was a $5000 reward for information about the murder. Falcon, a convicted felon with a history of drug abuse and mental problems, knew Melendez and did not like him; several witnesses would later testify that Falcon had said he would “get” Melendez. Falcon told police that Melendez had confessed to him that he, along with a man named John Berrien, had killed Baker. His story was inconsistent with many facts of the case.
Not long after Falcon became involved in the case, he was allegedly involved in breaking into the home and shooting up the car of a man named John Reagan and his wife. When the Reagans went to police, Gary Glisson, the detective investigating the Melendez case, told them that if they insisted on pressing charges, Falcon would go free and they would not be protected from him.
In March 1984 Berrien was arrested. Melendez, who had gone to Pennsylvania to pick peaches, was arrested there in May by FBI agents.
During police interrogations, Berrien told many conflicting stories, but eventually said that he drove Melendez to Baker’s school of cosmetology and later picked him up, but was not involved in the murder. In exchange for testifying against Melendez, Berrien was offered a deal; he pled no contest to a charge of being an accessory after the fact and received two years house arrest.
During pre-trial investigation, Melendez’s attorney interviewed a man in prison named Vernon James–one of the two men who a witness placed at the scene of the crime immediately prior to the murders. In the taped interview, James confessed that he had been present when Baker was murdered by two other men, and that Melendez was not there. However, this interview was never played at trial.
Melendez’s trial was conducted in September 1984. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Falcon and Berrien were the key witnesses for the prosecution. Melendez claimed that he was with a woman named Dorothy Rivera on the evening of the murders, an alibi that was substantiated by four other witnesses. Additional witnesses testified that Falcon had a grudge against Melendez and had said he wanted to kill him. Vernon James was called to the stand, but invoked his privilege against self incrimination and refused to testify. Melendez was convicted of murder and sentenced to death on September 20, 1984.
Melendez appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but his conviction was affirmed on December 11, 1986. Further petitions to the Polk County Circuit Court were denied in 1992 and again in 1994, but after an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, an evidentiary hearing was ordered for May 1996. At that hearing, Berrien retracted his previous testimony against Melendez, and said that the police had intimidated him and that his trial testimony had been false. Berrien’s attorney was also called as a witness and testified that Vernon James had confessed to him that he had killed Baker – with whom he had a homosexual relationship – in a quarrel. Nevertheless, the Circuit Court found no basis to order a new trial, and that decision was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court on June 11, 1998.
Finally, in 2000, after 16 years and numerous denied appeals, Melendez’s new attorneys discovered a transcript of the tape of Vernon James confessing to Baker’s murder. This transcript was presented at another evidentiary hearing on May 29, 2001, along with testimony from multiple new witnesses who claimed that James had confessed to them, including one woman who helped James burn his clothes on the night of the crime. Defense attorneys also presented records showing James had incriminated himself in statements to prosecutors which were never disclosed to the defense. Based on this new evidence, the Polk County Circuit Court reversed Melendez’s conviction on December 5, 2001. Prosecutors decided not to retry the case, and Melendez was released from prison on January 3, 2002. He received $100, a pair of pants, and a shirt as compensation.
– Alexandra Gross