Updated: (Nov. 17, 2016): Today, the Florida Supreme Court issued the mandate and formally released its October 27, 2016 opinion vacating Clemente Aguirre’s conviction and death sentence, after the State declined to challenge the Court’s unanimous opinion from three weeks earlier. Mr. Aguirre will soon be transferred off death row for the first time in over a decade, and will be returned to the county jail to await further proceedings. The Court’s decision means that Mr. Aguirre no longer stands convicted of any crime, and will again be presumed innocent unless and until he is proven guilty, should the State choose to retry him despite the new DNA evidence.
(Tallahassee, FL; October 27, 2016) – In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court today vacated the murder conviction of Clemente Aguirre based on new DNA evidence pointing to an alternate suspect. Aguirre has served 10 years on Florida’s death row for the 2004 murders of his neighbors Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis.
In reaching its decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the new DNA evidence coupled with confessions from Samantha Williams (the daughter and grand-daughter of the victims) to multiple individuals that she committed the murders so “substantially weakens the case against Aguirre” that the only “result is reasonable doubt as to Aguirre’s culpability.”
“We are grateful that the Court has recognized that the new DNA evidence entitles Mr. Aguirre to a new trial,” said Maria DeLiberato, an attorney with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel–Middle Region in Tampa. “Now that the Court has spoken so compellingly, we are hopeful that the prosecution will move quickly to release Mr. Aguirre and focus instead on prosecuting the person really responsible for this crime.”
In the initial hours after the bodies were discovered, police focused their investigation on Aguirre, an undocumented Honduran with no criminal record. Aguirre initially told police that he didn’t know anything about the murders. Later the same day, however, Aguirre asked to speak with police again and admitted that he had gone to the victims’ mobile home early that morning and had found the two women stabbed to death. He told police that after he discovered Williams’ body in the doorway of the mobile home, he checked her and Bareis for signs of life. He was afraid that the killer was still present, so he picked up the knife that was lying near Williams’s body, and then left the mobile home when he discovered that the killer was no longer in the home.
At trial, the prosecution presented the limited DNA evidence that had been tested to argue that Williams’ blood was on Aguirre’s clothes (which he voluntarily turned over to the police) and shoes, and that his fingerprint was on the knife. However, neither the prosecution nor the defense conducted testing on any of the more than 150 bloodstains that had been photographed and collected from the crime scene. Even though the evidence was consistent with Aguirre’s version of events, which he testified to at trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
In August 2011, Aguirre’s new counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region, in consultation with the Innocence Project, sought DNA testing of some of the previously untested evidence. None of the DNA found on the 84 items that were tested matched Aguirre; most matched to the two victims, but two bloodstains were identified as coming from Williams’ daughter (Bareis’ granddaughter), Samantha Williams. Armed with this evidence, the legal team sought to test the remainder of the evidence. Again, none of the newly tested stains showed Aguirre’s DNA, but another six were identified as Samantha’s. Samantha’s eight bloodstains had been collected from four different rooms—including in the bathroom where the state had argued at trial that the killer would have cleaned up—and each was found inches away from the victims’ blood.
At evidentiary hearings in May 2013 and May 2015, Aguirre’s lawyers presented additional evidence that tended to inculpate Samantha, including testimony from a crime-scene expert that the bloodstains now known to be Samantha’s were “fresh” at the time they were photographed, and that the pattern of the bloodstains on Aguirre’s clothing show they could not have been worn by the real killer. Attorneys introduced evidence that Samantha has confessed to the crimes on multiple occasions. Attorneys also presented evidence that Samantha and her mother had a troubled relationship and a heated argument the night of the murders.
At trial, Williams was a key witness against Aguirre claiming that she once woke up in the middle of the night to find Aguirre, who lived in the mobile home next door, standing over her bed. She also denied that her family owned a knife like the one used to commit the murder. In today’s ruling, the Florida Supreme Court wrote that the new DNA evidence and confessions by Williams “changes the focus entirely: No longer is Aguirre the creepy figure who appears over Samantha’s bed in the middle of the night; he is now the scapegoat for her crimes. Viewed through this lens, the DNA evidence tending to exculpate Aguirre but inculpate Samantha substantially weakens the case against Aguirre. And when the DNA evidence is considered together with Samantha’s numerous unequivocal confessions, the result is reasonable doubt as to Aguirre’s culpability.”
“Without the DNA evidence, there is a good likelihood that Mr. Aguirre would have already been put to death for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “We commend the Florida Supreme Court for acknowledging the extensive and powerful DNA evidence of Mr. Aguirre’s innocence.”
Attorneys from Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP wrote the appellate briefs for Aguirre, and one of the firm’s attorneys, Lindsey Boney, argued the appeal before the Florida Supreme Court. The case now goes back to the trial court for the prosecution to determine whether or not to retry the case. A copy of the court’s decision is available here. Fourteen attorneys who served as prosecutors or government appellate attorneys had filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Florida Supreme Court to reverse Aguirre’s conviction based on the new evidence. A copy of that brief is available here.
Aguirre is represented by Maria DeLiberato and Julissa Fontan with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region in Tampa; Kevin Newsom, Lindsey Boney, and Ashley Burkett of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Birmingham, AL; Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer of Tampa; and Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project.