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  1. Arts & Entertainment

In Tampa, man embarks on life after years on death row

TAMPA - Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin has lived in the little yellow house for more than a week now. From a chair beside the front door, he takes in the grassy yard, the high trees, the big sky, the three other houses meant for people who have endured what he has.

He stays outside as much as he can. He sits there when it's hot out or when the stars glimmer. He's walked the neighborhood a few times but crowds make him nervous.

"It's kind of scary," he said. "I just put my hands in my pockets and I look down because I don't want anybody to say I did something."

He knows what it means to be accused. Fourteen years ago, the state of Florida accused him of killing two women. He spent 10 years on death row before new evidence, including DNA tests, cast substantial doubt on his guilt. Last week, he was allowed to go free.

Now comes a new life in a new city. Now comes the Sunny Center, a collection of four small houses in a quiet Tampa neighborhood, the only place in the nation offering housing specifically to exonerated people.

Now come sleepless nights, breathless bouts of panic and the unshakable sense that maybe this isn't real.

"I'm afraid that I'm going to wake up," he said. "I'm afraid that it's a beautiful dream that I'm going to wake up from and the nightmare is going to continue."

***

The nightmare began the morning of June 17, 2004 in Altamonte Springs, when the bodies of two women were found inside a mobile home on a short dead-end road called Vagabond Way. They were Cheryl Williams, 47, and her mother, Carol Bareis, 68.

Williams had been stabbed 129 times. Bareis had been stabbed twice, in her chest and back. The murder weapon was a 10-inch chef's knife, which sheriff's deputies found lying in the yard between their home and a neighboring trailer.

That was where Aguirre-Jarquin lived. From his residence, detectives later retrieved a bag of bloodstained clothing.

In an interrogation and later in trial testimony, Aguirre-Jarquin, then 24, said he'd gone to visit his neighbors early that morning, as he often did in search of beer.

He said he discovered Williams' body blocking the front door. He lifted her onto his lap, tried to revive her but put her back when he realized she was dead. He walked toward the living room and saw Bareis' body lying still. He said he saw the knife and picked it up, fearful the killer was still lurking. He then ran back to his home, tossing the knife in the grass. He didn't report the murders, he said, because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared deportation to Honduras.

A non-unanimous jury recommended two death sentences.

***

"Welcome to hell."

That was the greeting when he arrived at Florida State Prison in 2006. He spent two years there before moving to Union Correctional Institution, where most of the state's 346 condemned inmates count the days.

Like them, he was confined all day, every day, to a cell about three paces long, with scarce views of other people, except, occasionally, a corrections officer. Like them, he got out a couple times a week for a shower or three hours of "recreation." Like them, he went everywhere in shackles.

In those first weeks, he cried every day. He spoke no English. Guards gave orders he didn't understand. He knew nothing about the legal process or that he was entitled to appeals. The day after he arrived, an inmate in a neighboring cell was hauled off to death watch, the last stop before execution.

"What I'm thinking is 'Wow, they're going to do me soon,' " he said.

He learned English by reading the Bible. The appellate process helped, too.

"I guess when your life depends on it, you will learn the language," he said.

***

As years ticked by on death row, cracks began to appear in the state's evidence against Aguirre-Jarquin. They emerged through the efforts of a defense team that eventually swelled to eight lawyers, including post-conviction attorneys Marie Parmer and Maria DeLiberato, and Innocence Project lawyers Josh Dubin and Nina Morrison.

"God sends you angels," he said. "And all these angels that God sent me fought with everything they've got. So it was very difficult to give up."

The lawyers discovered that none of the DNA evidence found at the murder scene belonged to Aguirre-Jarquin.

They discovered there were eight bloodstains near the victims with DNA that belonged to Williams' daughter, Samantha.

They discovered that Samantha Williams, over a course of several years, had confessed the murders to four people five separate times, according to court documents.

One friend recalled her saying "the demons in her head made her do it." A neighbor also reported Williams' statement: "I'm crazy, I'm evil and I killed my mother and grandmother."

Samantha Williams was described in court records as having "an extensive history of mental health problems, a violent nature, and a volatile relationship with her mother."

In 2016, a unanimous Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial.

"When the new DNA evidence is considered together with Samantha's numerous, unequivocal confessions, the result is reasonable doubt as to Aguirre's culpability," the court wrote.

In recent weeks, further doubt has emerged: The wife of Samantha Williams' former boyfriend is claiming he told her Williams left his home early on the morning of the murders, throwing her alibi in question.

In the midst of jury selection last week, prosecutors announced they were dropping the charges. In a statement, the State Attorney's Office for Seminole County said they still question Aguirre-Jarquin's version of events, but they no longer believed they could succeed in a trial. They said they plan to confer with sheriff's officials to discuss further investigation.

Aguirre-Jarquin was detained briefly on an immigration hold before his lawyers secured a bond for his release.

That was Nov. 5.

***

He is 38 now, with almost no money or possessions. He had nothing but a T-shirt when he walked out of the county jail. Lawyers got him the polo shirts and khakis and sneakers he now wears.

The world hasn't entirely changed. But there are enough differences that he notices. Buildings and highways seem bigger. He's learning to work a smart phone, a gift from the Innocence Project. He says no one talks to each other anymore.

"Maybe I'm the one who changed," he said. "Or maybe I got stuck in that time."

There were hugs and toasts that first night during a steak dinner with his legal team at the fancy Capital Grille restaurant. Wait staff overheard the conversation and bought him a beer. The next day, Tuesday, he went to Cocoa Beach. The ocean reminded him of paintings he made on death row. White sand blanketed his feet. He swam for the first time in 14 years.

On Wednesday, he was driven to Tampa, to the Sunny Center. It's named for Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, one of its founders, herself a Florida death row alumnae. She and her husband, Peter Pringle, an exoneree from Ireland, said they came up with the concept after noticing that many wrongfully convicted people have little help after prison. They coordinated with Dorothy Bort, a volunteer, to open the first location in Tampa. They're funded through donations. They hope to open other homes for exonerees in Arizona, Louisiana, and Ohio.

"It was very important to us that this not just be a housing project," Jacobs wrote in an email to the Times. "It is a community and we are all family. We provide counseling and a social worker and PTSD therapy and a sense of belonging. We help people to manage their lives so they have a safe, sustainable and secure place to live for as long as they want it."

Derrick Jamison moved in a few days before Aguirre-Jarquin. He served 20 years on death row in Ohio before his exoneration in 2005.

"People who have been on death row have been to hell," Jamison said. "I know what he's been through. I know it's been hard on him. He's going to need good people around him."

In his new home, he has a bed, a place to hang his new clothes, a couch, a TV, a narrow kitchen. At his beside are the Bible and a memoir by a fellow death row exoneree.

His sister is supposed to visit soon. He longs to hug her outside prison walls. He doesn't know what will come next for him.

"I guess I see life in a very different perspective now," he said. "Because I almost lost it."

For more information about The Sunny Center, visit thesunnycenter.com. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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