1. Opinion

A man who's still on death row

Published Sep. 6, 2013

Back in June, I wrote a story for Perspective about a Florida death row inmate named Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, who awaits execution for the stabbing deaths in 2004 of his two next-door neighbors, Cheryl Williams and her mother, Carol Bareis. He had a weeklong hearing this summer where his lawyers presented evidence and expert testimony that they said showed Williams' daughter, Samantha, was the real killer.

They hoped he would win a new chance to make his case to a jury in a case that raises questions about the efficiency and fairness of the death penalty — questions that are especially important in the wake of the Legislature's passage this year of the Timely Justice Act, an effort to speed up executions.

But Seminole Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler has said no. She issued a ruling late last month saying that the evidence is simply not enough to merit a new trial.

Aguirre-Jarquin, 33, was sentenced to die in 2006.

State prosecutors maintain that he sneaked into the mobile home at 121 Vagabond Way in Altamonte Springs just before 6 a.m. on June 18, 2004. Inside, he stabbed Bareis twice and Williams 129 times with a kitchen knife. He then ran back to his home.

When deputies questioned him, Aguirre-Jarquin admitted that he had visited the home early that morning to ask if they had beer. He came across Williams' body and tried to revive her, he said. After he realized she was dead, he stepped further inside and found Bareis. He spotted the knife and picked it up, fearing the killer might still be there, he said. He ran home and tossed the knife in the grass. He claimed he didn't report the crime because he was in the U.S. illegally and feared deportation to his native Honduras.

"This story completely defies common sense," Recksiedler wrote in her ruling.

In 2010, lawyers for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, secured DNA testing for 84 pieces of crime scene evidence that had not been tested previously. None of the items contained Aguirre-Jarquin's DNA.

Among the tested items were eight small blood droplets, which an expert said were fresh. When tested, they matched the DNA of Cheryl Williams' daughter, Samantha.

Further investigation revealed Samantha Williams had a history of psychiatric problems and trouble with the law. She had also made numerous statements in the years since her mother's death that lawyers said suggested she was somehow responsible.

"Do you understand that they died for me," she wailed during a 2007 arrest. In another incident, she was reported to have said that "demons" were in her head and made her kill her family.

Recksiedler declared that DNA and other newly discovered forensic evidence was not convincing enough to discount the official theory of how the crime happened. The claim of a defense expert, who testified that the new DNA evidence pointed to Samantha Williams as the killer, was highly unlikely, the judge wrote.

"The residence at 121 Vagabond Way was not in a state of pristine cleanliness such that a few drops of Samantha Williams' blood, several of which were barely visible in the crime scene photographs, were so out of place as to render them significant," Recksiedler wrote.

The judge also disqualified some of Williams' statements as hearsay. Others did not constitute specific confessions to any crime, the judge said, and would not be admissible in a new trial anyway.

"We were quite surprised and disappointed given the strength of the DNA and other evidence," said Nina Morrison, lawyer for the New York-based Innocence Project, which helped facilitate the case's DNA testing. The group has helped exonerate more than 300 wrongfully convicted people nationwide.

"It's difficult to imagine the jury wouldn't have wanted to hear and weigh the evidence for themselves in Clemente's case," Morrison said. "A jury has to hear it certainly before a person can be executed and, we think, before a person can spend another day in prison."

For now, Aguirre-Jarquin will continue to sit on death row, awaiting an execution date that is likely still far in the future. In the meantime, his lawyers plan to appeal the latest ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, a process that could take up to two years.

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or