Facing Exculpatory DNA Evidence and Multiple Confessions by Another Suspect, Prosecutors Agree to Dismiss All Charges on Eve of Clemente Aguirre’s Second Death Penalty Trial
(Sanford, Florida, Nov. 5, 2018) – After more than 14 years behind bars—including a decade on Florida’s death row—Clemente Javier Aguirre was exonerated of all charges today in the 2004 stabbing deaths of his former neighbors Cheryl Williams and Carole Bareis.
In a Seminole County courtroom, Circuit Judge John D. Galluzzo dismissed all charges against Aguirre after prosecutors announced today, in the middle of jury selection, that they will not proceed with the retrial.
Aguirre, who is now 38 years old, maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest at age 24 in June 2004. He was originally convicted of the murders and sentenced to death in 2006.
In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned Aguirre’s conviction and death sentence based on new evidence of innocence that his original jury never heard. The new evidence included DNA testing of multiple pieces of crime scene evidence that exculpated Aguirre and implicated another suspect—the victims’ daughter and granddaughter, Samantha Williams. The state Supreme Court also learned of evidence that, in the years after Aguirre’s trial, Samantha Williams confessed that she committed the murders to numerous friends and acquaintances who had no connection to Aguirre.
Despite the new evidence, however, State Attorney Phil Archer had announced that the state would not only retry Aguirre, but also seek the death penalty a second time. Today’s decision by prosecutors not to proceed came after additional evidence undermining Williams’ alibi and further implicating her emerged in recent pretrial proceedings.
“Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Joshua Dubin, one of Aguirre’s lead trial attorneys. “While we are overjoyed that his ordeal is finally over, the case of Clemente Aguirre should serve as a chilling cautionary tale about how dangerous it is when there is a rush to judgment in a capital case. Mr. Aguirre pleaded for the blood to be tested and thankfully his post-conviction attorneys got that done. So when the results of those tests revealed that Samantha Williams’ blood was found within inches of the victim’s blood, and that she repeatedly confessed that she committed the crime to multiple witnesses, it boggles the mind that Mr. Aguirre even faced the prospect of being sent back to death row a second time.”
Aguirre was wrongly convicted at his first trial after receiving woefully inadequate representation from his court-appointed trial attorney, who, among other critical missteps, failed to request DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could have proven Aguirre’s innocence and prevented him from facing execution. Nor did his original trial counsel conduct any investigation into Samantha Williams, even though counsel had records showing that while under psychiatric hospitalization, she had previously threatened to “kill” her mother.
On the morning of June 17, 2004, Aguirre found the bodies of Cheryl Williams and her mother Carol Bareis in their trailer home. They had been stabbed dozens of times. Distressed by the violent scene, Aguirre checked the victims to see if they were still breathing, at which point he got the victims’ blood on his clothing. Realizing they were dead, Aguirre picked up a knife that was near Williams’ body, fearful that the perpetrator was still present, but then panicked, throwing the knife into the yard and returning to his neighboring trailer.
When questioned by the police, Aguirre initially reported that he knew nothing about the murders; at that time, Aguirre was an immigrant from Honduras with no criminal history, but feared deportation from the United States. Later that same day, however, he asked to speak to police again, and voluntarily disclosed that he’d been in the trailer earlier that morning and discovered the bodies. The officers arrested him that day and charged him with evidence tampering. He remained a person of interest and was held without bond until he was charged 10 days later with the double murders. Aguirre had no previous criminal history.
At the 2006 trial, the prosecution’s case was circumstantial and weak. They presented limited DNA evidence that Cheryl Williams’ blood was on Aguirre’s clothes (which he voluntarily turned over to the police) and shoes, and that he had handled the knife. And although there were more than 150 bloodstains that were photographed and swabbed from the crime scene, neither the prosecution nor Aguirre’s own defense attorney sought to have any of them tested for DNA. Those untested bloodstains—when finally subjected to advanced DNA analysis during Aguirre’s appeals—ultimately excluded Aguirre, and repeatedly pointed to Samantha Williams as the source, including eight bloodstains found in high-traffic areas and within inches of the victims’ blood.
Nor did Aguirre’s original trial lawyer conduct any other forensic investigation. He failed to hire forensic experts, conduct a single DNA test, or even to examine any of the 197 items of evidence that were collected in the case. When asked in Aguirre’s post-conviction hearings why he had failed to do so, trial counsel scoffed at the notion of hiring a “CSI Las Vegas blood whisperer”—even though not doing so meant that he had no evidence to corroborate Aguirre’s claim of innocence. The lawyer also failed to investigate whether there were alternative suspects. Consequently, although the evidence presented at trial was consistent with Aguirre’s version of events, he was convicted. He was then sentenced to death, even though the jury was not unanimous in its recommendation in either case.
“Today is the culmination of years of hard work to help free an innocent man from death row.”
“Today is the culmination of years of hard work to help free an innocent man from death row,” said Lindsey Boney, an attorney with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP who argued Aguirre’s successful appeal before the Florida Supreme Court and led his retrial team. “In addition to the new DNA testing, the courage of everyday people who came forward—even in the last month—with critical pieces of new information played a significant role in revealing the truth of Aguirre’s innocence. This case is a stark reminder that everyone should be deeply concerned that people like Aguirre must receive adequate legal representation, especially when the ultimate punishment is at stake.”
The Innocence Project began working on Aguirre’s case in 2011 when Capital Collateral Regional Counsel—Middle Region asked for assistance in seeking DNA testing of more than 84 pieces of previously-untested evidence. Results excluded Aguirre unequivocally.
At an evidentiary hearing in May 2013, Aguirre’s lawyers presented additional evidence inculpating Samantha Williams, including evidence that she’d made multiple statements—one of which was captured on police video—suggesting her own culpability for the murders and revealing that she and her mother had a troubled relationship and a heated argument the night of the murders.
In 2016, after Aguirre’s lawyers presented additional evidence in court, Aguirre’s conviction and death row sentence were finally overturned. The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the new DNA evidence coupled with confessions from Samantha Williams that she committed the murders so “substantially weaken[ed] the case against Aguirre” that the only “result is reasonable doubt as to Aguirre’s culpability.”
Fourteen attorneys who had previously served as prosecutors or government appellate attorneys in death penalty cases in Florida and nationally filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the successful appeal.
However, despite the state Supreme Court’s ruling, and the new evidence that overwhelmingly demonstrated that Aguirre did not commit the crimes, the state decided to once again try Aguirre and pursue the death penalty. The week before his retrial was to begin, retired Seminole County Judge O.H. Eaton—the judge who originally sentenced Aguirre to death—came forward and told the Orlando Sentinel that the new evidence of Aguirre’s innocence was troubling and compelling—and that if he had known of that evidence in 2006, he would in all likelihood have overruled the jury’s verdict.
At his exoneration hearing today, Aguirre was surrounded by family, friends and legal advocates—including his two sisters (both Florida residents and U.S. citizens) and more than a dozen lawyers who had worked on his case over the last decade.
Aguirre’s retrial team included an array of dedicated counsel, many of whom donated their time pro bono to secure his exoneration. These included Joshua Dubin of Dubin Research & Consulting, who also serves as the Innocence Ambassador Advisor to the Innocence Project; Lindsey Boney, Dylan Black and Brooks Proctor of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Birmingham, AL; Marie Parmer, Esq. of the Samuels Parmer Law Firm in Tampa; and Jeffrey Horowitz of Arnold & Porter LLP in New York. Numerous other attorneys and paralegals on the staffs of the above offices also worked on the case, and Frank Bankowitz of Bankowitz PA served as local counsel. Additionally, for two years leading up to Aguirre’s anticipated retrial, Michael Banks, David Dziengowski, Alison Tanchyk and Michael DiGiovanni of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP worked with the trial team on an exhaustive reinvestigation of the case and preparation for trial.
During the post-conviction proceedings and appeal following his 2006 death sentence, Maria DeLiberato of Capital Collateral Regional Counsel-Middle and Lindsey Boney of the Bradley firm served as lead counsel, with Boney arguing the appeal in the Florida Supreme Court. Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law; Marie Parmer of the Samuels-Parmer firm; Ashley Burkett, now with Arnold & Porter LLP; and Julissa Fontan of CCRC-Middle all served as co-counsel for Aguirre, with DeLiberato and Morrison continuing to actively consult with and assist the trial team before today’s exoneration.