The tally continues to tick upwards for those tracking the number of wrongful convictions found on death row. An anomaly these occurrences are not, as the figures already even out to at least one person exonerated for every ten executions in this country.
On November 5, a man named Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin was at long last freed after spending more than 14 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit in Seminole County, Florida — becoming the 164th person exonerated from death row.
Whenever the subject of wrongful convictions comes up, the immediate demand from most audiences is “how did this happen?” followed by “what happened to those in the system who were responsible?” The answers are usually infuriating, and Aguirre-Jarquin’s case is no exception.
The victims in this case, Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, were neighbors of Aguirre-Jarquin’s at the time of their death.
On the morning following their murder, Aguirre-Jarquin found their bodies in their trailer home where they had been stabbed dozens of times. He quickly checked for signs of life, during which time he got the victims’ blood on his clothing. When he realized that they were dead, he picked up a knife in self-defense in case the killer was still in the home. He then panicked and fled the scene, dropping the knife behind him.
Aguirre-Jarquin had no criminal history, no motive, and confessed to the police that he had been at the crime scene. There was nothing but circumstantial evidence against him at best, and yet he was held without bond for ten days before he was charged with the double murder.
It gets worse from there. During his trial, Aguirre-Jarquin received woefully terrible representation (as is often the case for those who end up on death row). His attorneys failed to request DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could have proven his innocence, and they did not hire forensic experts or even examine 197 items of evidence that were collected. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they failed to investigate Samantha Williams, the daughter/granddaughter of the victims. Aguirre-Jarquin was convicted and sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury.
Over the next 14 years, Aguirre-Jarquin repeatedly begged for a blood sample to be tested that he felt certain would clear him, while Samantha Williams confessed to several people that she was the one who committed the murders. Fortunately for Aguirre-Jarquin, the Innocence Project took his case in 2011 and began to make progress proving his innocence.
In 2013, Aguirre-Jarquin’s lawyers presented new evidence at a hearing that implicated Samantha Williams in the case, including a statement made by her and captured on police video where she suggested her responsibility for the murders. Shortly thereafter, the blood sample was finally tested. It proved that Aguirre-Jarquin’s blood was not at the scene, but the blood of Samantha Williams’ was and within inches of one of the victim’s blood.
In 2016, after introducing even further evidence that indicated Samantha as the person behind the crimes, the Florida State Supreme Court ruled unanimously to overturn Aguirre-Jarquin’s conviction and death sentence.
Unbelievably, the state (the District Attorney) decided to try Aguirre-Jarquin for the same crime again — pursuing the death penalty. Go ahead and read that again. I know I had to.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed (for once) and Florida Circuit Judge John D. Galluzzo dismissed all new charges against Aguirre-Jarquin after prosecutors announced they would not proceed with the trial. They did this only when even more evidence of Samantha William’s guilt poured in during the jury selection process for Aguirre-Jarquin’s second trial.
And what happened to all those involved you might be wondering? The court-appointed attorneys who failed to do the bare minimum to prove their client’s innocence, the police that picked an easy scapegoat to wrap up a case instead of fully investigating all suspects, the prosecutors who decided to proceed with a death penalty trial despite their evidence being weak? Nothing.
Florida is especially egregious when it comes to wrongful convictions. They lead the nation with 28 exonerations from death row and countless others for lesser charges. But Florida is far from the only state where you can read a story that plays out like this.
When you consider all of the factors involved in a death penalty case — the likelihood of a wrongful conviction, a system marred by corruption and shoddy investigating, the vast costs, and the multiple instances of bias on both racial and socioeconomic grounds, there is absolutely no excuse for letting this system hold the power of life and death.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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