For the past two months, we have faced confinement, separation from loved ones and uncertainty about getting to the other side of the pandemic. It’s brought me back to the place I was two years ago – sitting in jail for a crime I didn’t commit.
At the age of 24, I was wrongfully convicted of a double murder in Altamonte Springs and sentenced to death. The cards were stacked against me, but I refused to give up hope that one day I would walk free.
Ten years later, there was a major breakthrough with new DNA testing and confessions from the actual perpetrator. The Florida Supreme Court overturned my conviction, but the state attorney decided to retry me for the crime, and I waited in jail for two more years until he changed his mind.
I was finally free in 2018, but I’m still fighting for justice. The state that took my liberty hasn’t given me a dime to rebuild my life. Florida is one of 35 states with a compensation law that provides $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. However, roadblocks in the law have excluded two-thirds of exonerees in the state.
My claim was rejected because it was supposed to be filed 90 days after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out my conviction, even though I was still in jail waiting to be retried at that point. I put in my claim soon after I was released, but it was too late.
The other major roadblock is the “clean hands” bar on compensating exonerees who have any other unrelated convictions. Orlando Boquete had a clean record before he was wrongly convicted of sexual assault in Monroe County. He is ineligible for compensation because he escaped from prison during a sentence he never should have been serving in the first place.
There was real hope things would change this year when six committees in the Florida Legislature unanimously passed legislation to fix compensation. However, it never got a final vote by the full House and Senate before the legislative session ended in March.
That was a real disappointment, but I won’t give up hope that Florida lawmakers will do the right thing. I hope they do not give up on me. Since COVID-19 hit, life has only gotten harder. The family and friends who were helping make ends meet now have their own financial struggles. Without health insurance, I’m terrified that getting sick would lead to years of debt.
How will the state afford this in tough economic times? Without compensation, exonerees are filing lawsuits which have already cost taxpayers $13 million. Public dollars are being used to pay for years of litigation and potentially unlimited awards. The state can’t afford not to fix the law.
The Florida Legislature made progress this year, and now we have to get the changes over the finish line. You can help by telling your state lawmakers to continue fighting for fair exoneree compensation.
Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin was exonerated in 2018 after spending 14 years in prison – 10 on death row – for a double-murder he did not commit. He is a resident of Tampa Bay.