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Case in Point

Florida Wrestles With the Death Penalty, One Case at a Time

Someone else has confessed. The DNA evidence points elsewhere. What does it take to get off death row?

Florida officials have insisted for the past 12 years that an undocumented Honduran immigrant, a former dishwasher named Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin, slaughtered Carol Bareis and Cheryl Williams, a mother and daughter, on a hot spring night near Orlando in 2004. And, so far, the judges and jurors who have considered the case have mostly accepted that theory, which is why Aguirre today sits on the state’s death row. (I say “mostly” because Aguirre’s jurors did not unanimously vote to sentence him to death, a statewide practice that a Florida judge recently ruled unconstitutional. So even if he loses this appeal, he may escape execution.)

In “Case in Point,” Andrew Cohen examines a single case or character that sheds light on the criminal justice system.

Since Aguirre’s conviction and sentencing in 2006, the prosecution’s circumstantial case against him has been undermined in almost every significant way. Late-discovered (and previously-untested) DNA from the bloody crime scene not only appears to weaken the prosecution’s theory of Aguirre as a soused, knife-wielding neighbor but also appears to point to the presence of a woman—the daughter (and granddaughter) of the victims—who subsequently has “confessed” to the murders. Rarely is a capital defendant able to offer an appellate court what might be considered both a DNA exoneration and an alternative suspect.

Aguirre’s attorneys argue in their extensive briefs that this new evidence is more than enough to warrant a reversal of their client’s conviction and death sentence and that Aguirre should be given a new trial so a jury can evaluate the new theory of the case. State attorneys say that the prosecution’s case against Aguirre still holds up and that, in any event, Aguirre failed to raise the new issues in time.

The oral argument in the case, held on April 71, made it clear that the justices are divided on what to do with Aguirre and divided, too, on the meaning and import of the new evidence. If blood evidence helped convict Aguirre, as it surely did, can it now help exonerate him, or at least get him off death row?

The crime and the trial

What no one disputes is that Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis were stabbed so violently and so often on the night of June 17, 2004, that their bodies became bloody pulp. Jurors were told that Williams was stabbed 129 times with a 10-inch chef’s knife that was found between the victims’ home and Aguirre’s home next door. No one disputes, either, that Aguirre behaved erratically when he was questioned about the murders. He initially denied any knowledge of the crime scene and then told the police that he had discovered the bodies and tried to revive one of the victims.

Aguirre also told the police he had picked up the knife, the murder weapon, because he feared that whoever had killed the victims was still in the house. After determining that no one else was there, and realizing that he was walking through a double-homicide scene, he dropped or threw the knife away between his house and the victims’ house, he told the police. He said he failed to report the crime because, being undocumented, he feared deportation back to Honduras. That was the motive for the killings, prosecutors said, Aguirre’s fear that the victims would report him to immigration officials. Aguirre had no prior criminal history before he was charged.

Aguirre’s clothes were soaked with the blood of one of the victims and prosecutors told jurors that he had killed both women after a violent struggle. At trial, based on the testimony of a prosecution expert who examined the bloodstain patterns on Aguirre’s clothing, prosecutors argued that they were caused by “motion” not “contact.” This, prosecutors argued, pointed to a struggle with the victims and undermined Aguirre’s story about happening on the crime scene and cradling one of the victims to try to revive her. There were bloody footprints inside the home as well that were consistent with Aguirre’s shoes, prosecutors told jurors. Aguirre testified as the sole witness in his defense and largely repeated the story he had told the police. It took jurors less than five hours to convict him of two counts of first-degree murder. It took them 45 minutes or so to recommend a sentence of death.

The new evidence

If the story of these murders had ended there, few beyond a small circle of family, friends, and neighbors would even remember the case. But the story, and the conviction, look different now. First, years after the conviction, a state judge ordered DNA testing of 150 bloodstains collected from the crime scene. A bloody struggle would presumably have left the killer’s DNA all over the crime scene.

None of those bloodstains — none of them — contained Aguirre’s DNA. Eight samples, however, were consistent with the DNA profile of Samantha Williams, the daughter of one victim and granddaughter of the other. The presence of Samantha Williams’ DNA at the scene was both expected and surprising. She lived there, after all. But how to explain its presence on samples of the victims’ blood?

When Aguirre’s current attorneys used the new DNA findings to investigate Williams they found evidence they say should have made her, at the least, a prime suspect in the murders. Samantha Williams, Aguirre’s attorneys now assert, has a “long and well-documented history of substance abuse, serious mental illness (including impulse control disorder and intermittent explosive disorder), blackouts, and irrational anger, all of which she suffered from at the time of the murders.” She and her mother fought frequently, Aguirre’s lawyers assert, and there is evidence that shows Samantha Williams was involuntarily committed to a mental institution more than 60 times.

Williams’ credibility is crucial not just because she helped incriminate Aguirre at trial but because she has, since Aguirre’s conviction, made what defense attorneys call a series of incriminating statements admitting to the murders. Most recently, they argue in briefs filed with the justices in Tallahassee, “two of Samantha’s former neighbors and another witness testified unequivocally that on three separate occasions Samantha told them that she had ‘killed [her] grandmother and her mother.’” All told, Aguirre’s lawyers told the Florida Supreme Court, Samantha Williams has “confessed” to the crime at least seven times.

The state responds

Florida now finds itself in the difficult position of trashing the credibility of a witness it relied on to convict Aguirre. Yes, the state concedes, Samantha Williams subsequently has confessed to the murders but those confessions “were nothing more than a series of vague and erratic statements made by a mentally disturbed woman who tragically lost her mother and grandmother to a violent double homicide.” Samantha’s alibi, that she was at her boyfriend’s house at the time of the murders, was checked out by the police, the state contends, and, in any event, if Aguirre were to get a new trial Williams’ self-incriminating statements would be inadmissible; they couldn’t result in an acquittal because no jury would be permitted to hear them.

More persuasively, Florida points out that Aguirre’s “clothes were found in a bag on the roof of his home and were covered in the victims’ blood.” The “murder weapon is the same make and model of a knife missing from his place of employment,” the state told the justices, and virtually all of the bloody shoe impressions were consistent with his footprints.

If Samantha Williams was indeed the killer, the state seems to suggest, her footprints, like those of Aguirre, should have been all over that murder scene as well. They were not. The knife, the bloody clothes, the admitted presence of Aguirre at the crime scene moving the bodies, all serve to justify the original verdict and sentence, Florida contends. And even if they do not Aguirre’s new arguments come too late under the state’s byzantine procedural rules.

The law

Although Florida has a well-earned reputation for wrongful convictions that linger for decades, there is strong recent precedent for tossing out murder convictions and sentences based on the discovery of forensic evidence like that discovered here. In 2013, for example, the Florida Supreme Court overturned Roy Swafford’s conviction and death sentence in a murder and sexual battery case after new evidence revealed “no seminal fluid found in the victim.” Since the charge of battery was based on a false positive test for such fluid, and since the first-degree murder charge was based on the sexual assault allegation, the whole case came apart.

Likewise, in 2014, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence of Paul Hildwin when newly-discovered DNA evidence linked another man to two items left at the crime scene. Aguirre’s attorneys argue that the rationale of the Swafford and Hildwin cases ought to apply to their client’s case—that in each of the three cases newly-discovered scientific evidence undermines the prosecution’s theory of the case and points to some other person as the perpetrator of the crime. Florida, on the other hand, says the two recent decisions can be distinguished from the Aguirre case.

The justices could announce their decision in the case any day now. The ultimate question they have to answer is whether the new evidence is so significant that it would create a “reasonable doubt” about Aguirre’s culpability and “probably” produce an acquittal on retrial. It is a high standard, and rightfully so, otherwise no verdict would ever be final. But it’s hard to imagine the next Aguirre jury having such an easy time reaching a verdict given what we now know, and what they would know. Florida’s death penalty is in chaos statewide. In this one head-spinning case it’s not exactly looking so strong, either.