Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón

Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime he did not commit.

“So now I want to take this trip you see. I’m tired of it. I want out of there. I’m depressed. I made a rope. Then, I put a noose in it. And I look at the rope and I look at my bunk. And I say to myself, ‘I better lay down and think about this a little bit more.’ And when I lay down I fell in a deep, deep sleep. And I start dreaming. I’m a little kid again. Doing the things I used to do when I was a little kid. The things that made me happy. The things that made me smile. So here I am dreaming that I’m swimming in the beautiful Caribbean Sea. The water is warm. The sun is bright. The sky is so blue. The palm trees look so good. It’s a beautiful day. And then, I see something I never saw before. Four dolphins coming my way. And they start flipping and jumping like dolphins do. I’m having a ball in there. I’m so happy. Then I look to the shore and there’s a beautiful lady waving at me. Smiling at me. Throwing kisses at me. And she seems so happy. And in the dream, I know why she’s happy. She’s happy because I’m happy. That’s my dear mother. And then I wake up. When I wake up I take that rope that I made to take my life with, and I go straight to the toilet and I look at the toilet and I look at the rope, and I say real loud, ‘I don’t wanna die!’ And I flush it. But the true fact is it was lots and lots and lots of beautiful dreams. Every time I got depressed, every time I want out of there, every time suicide thoughts came to my mind, I would pray to God to send me a beautiful dream. Like God was telling me, ‘Hey! I know you didn’t do it, but I control the time. You get out when I say you get out. You just got to trust me.’ It took 17 years, 8 months, and one day.”

A devoted death penalty abolitionist, Juan speaks to audiences throughout the world, sharing the compassion he developed through experiences of profound humanity on death row. He attributes his survival to the enduring love of family, contact with the outside world, and his fellow death row inmates, who cared for one another and taught him to read and write in English, which allowed him to communicate with his lawyers more effectively. He wants people to know that when they execute people, they're not executing the same person that committed the crime. They are killing somebody else, somebody that redeemed themselves, somebody that has changed.

Juan was exonerated in 2002 when it was revealed that the prosecutor had withheld exculpatory evidence in his case. He now lives in New Mexico, with his partner, Judi Caruso. Both are active in Witness to Innocence. His compensation for nearly 18 years of wrongful imprisonment enduring the harsh conditions of death row was $100. If he could get anything in the way of compensation, it would be “two things: an apology, and abolish the death penalty...I'd be the happiest man in the world. That's what I want for this system.”
© 2024 Martin Schoeller
Death Row Exonerees

︎Moving Portraits
︎Short Documentaries

Through partnership with Witness to Innocence, Martin photographed, interviewed, and filmed death row exonerees, recording and sharing their stories of how they were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit.* 

I have been living in the US for 25 years and, as a German national raised in the shadow of the Nazi regime, remain appalled by state-sponsored murder. In this series I partnered with Witness to Innocence, the organization founded by activist Sister Helen Prejan and death row exoneree, Ray Krone.  As they fight to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and to shine a harsh light on the profound, damning flaws in the ways these laws are applied, 189 women and men that were sentenced to die have been exonerated.

I wanted to present viewers with a harrowing, interactive account of the stories of innocent people forced to endure government-sanctioned horror.  These women and men bear dignified witness to the unacceptable costs of a misguided system of laws in desperate need of revision and a prison system that focuses on retaliation and rehabilitation.
– Martin Schoeller

*individual texts courtesy of Witness to Innocence

2020, Death Row Exonerees, Fotografiska, New York, New York, USA
2020, Works, NRW Forum, Berlin, Germany

Selected Press
Sentenced to death, but innocent: These are stories of justice gone wrong, National Geographic, USA
Martin Schoeller: Moving Portraits, Witness to Innocence, USA
Martin Schoeller: Death Row Exonerees, Air Mail Arts Intel, USA
Death Row Exonerees, ArtForum, USA
Martin Schoeller/Death Row Exonerees, Flaunt Magazine, USA
Interview: Martin Schoeller at Fotografiska New York Re-Opening, Musée Magazine, USA
Death Row Exonerees: behind a powerful photo project on injustice, The Guardian, USA
Martin Schoeller: ‘I am trying to show a humanity I think we all share’, TimeOut Shanghai, China
Death Row Exonerees Exhibit Featured in the Guardian, Witness to Innocence, USA