It was his smile that gave him away.
A notable gap where a front tooth belonged had been a recognizable feature since adolescence, and it was that missing tooth and a tattoo that had flagged Juan Melendez for law enforcement, who arrested him May 2, 1984, on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery for the death of a Florida man eight months before.
Despite little more than the word of a vindictive informer, a lack of forensic evidence, Melendez’s corroborated alibi that placed him elsewhere and what was arguably a slipshod investigation, he was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
He spent the next 17 years, eight months and a day – 6,446 days – on death row in Florida until he was exonerated by the taped confession of the real killer.
Since he walked free in 2002, Melendez, 68, has traveled around the country as a human rights activist, sharing his story and speaking out against capital punishment – including in New Mexico, which repealed the death penalty in 2009.
Fifteen years ago, he moved to Albuquerque.
“I call it my second home,” the Puerto Rican native said. “Lots of people told me about Albuquerque, how beautiful it is. But I’ve seen a lot of places in my life that are beautiful. The thing I like about New Mexico is the people here. The people are beautiful.”
Melendez still counts each day, just like he did on death row. When we met this week, it was 17 years, 8 months and 1 day since he walked free from prison with $100, a pair of pants, a T-shirt and a mouth full of dental problems, including that missing tooth.
That was not so beautiful.
“Lady, I can tell you some stories,” he said. “The doctors and the dentist in that prison could not be hired in the free world. They don’t care about toothbrushes or your teeth or any part of you. They’re not thinking of detaining you; they’re thinking of killing you.”
About 12 years ago, Melendez said, he met a dentist at one of his speaking engagements who made a denture to fill in the gap in his front teeth. But time and the lack of dental hygiene had left even a false tooth in disrepair.
“My teeth were in bad, bad shape,” he said.
That’s when he learned that not every tooth fairy has wings, but some have some pretty big hearts.
Last Saturday, Melendez was one of 16 local beneficiaries of a national day of service put on by The Smile Generation, a referral service connecting patients with dentists.
Since Smile Generation Serve Day began in 2011, more than 15,000 people nationwide have received free dental care worth more than $25 million.
This year, Albuquerque dental offices Cottonwood Smiles Dentistry, owned by Dr. Marisol King, and Enchanted Hills Dentistry, owned by King’s husband, Dr. Bryan Graziano, provided more than $30,000 worth of dental work to their smiling patients.
“For our team, it’s all about providing access to care for patients in need,” King said. “Millions of Americans in underserved communities do not have access to dentistry. Smile Generation Serve Day gives us the opportunity to provide comprehensive oral health care to those who need it most.”
Patients served this year include Special Olympic athletes, single parents and others who bring their families in for dental work but can’t afford it for themselves.
Melendez came to the attention of King and her associate, Dr. Jasmine Shakya, through After Innocence, a national nonprofit that provides re-entry assistance to the wrongfully convicted.
“We selected Mr. Melendez because we had heard about his story and it was really impactful,” King said. “Dr. Jasmine felt that he had had such an unfair experience and had lost so much in his life, and we wanted to play a small part in helping restore his health and confidence.”
For more than four hours, Shakya and hygienist Sarah Apodaca cleaned, extracted and filled Melendez’s teeth. It was the first formal dental exam he had ever undergone.
“They took three teeth out of me, and that was enough teeth to take,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m not going to lie to you. I bet they did more than a $5,000 job in my mouth. I never could have afforded that.”
Melendez laughs easily, but he admits that he is still bitter over what happened to him. He has never received an apology. He suspects he never will.
“I’m angry. I’m very angry,” he said. “But I use my anger in a positive way, educating the people about what happened to me and hoping it will never happen to another person.”
He still counts off every day, but these are the good days, he says. The free days. The beautiful days.
So he smiles, and that’s not giving anything away but his joy.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.