More than a year ago the Innocence Project and lead counsel for Florida death row inmate Clemente Aguirre presented compelling new evidence for overturning his conviction. Today, attorneys who served as prosecutors or government appellate attorneys have filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Florida Supreme Court to reverse Aguirre’s capital murder convictions based on DNA and other evidence pointing to an alternate suspect.
Aguirre has been on Florida’s death row since 2006 for the murders of a mother and daughter, Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, two of Aguirre’s neighbors who were found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004.
In the brief, the lawyers — all of whom have sought or defended the death penalty in a multitude of cases — argue that it would undermine the legitimacy of the justice system to deny Aguirre a new trial in light of the strong DNA evidence pointing to his innocence. The lawyers also contend that the inadequate representation that Aguirre received at trial entitles him to a new trial.
Aguirre, an undocumented Honduran with no criminal record, initially told the police that he didn’t know anything about the murders of his neighbors. Later the same day, however, he asked to speak with police again and admitted that he had gone to their home at approximately 6:00 a.m. that morning and saw that both women had been stabbed to death. After discovering William’s body in the doorway of the trailer, he picked up the knife near her body because he was afraid the killer was still present. After discovering Bareis had been murdered too, he panicked, threw the knife into the yard, and went home to his neighboring trailer.
At trial, the prosecution presented the limited DNA evidence tested in the case to show that Williams’s blood was on Aguirre’s clothes and shoes and that his fingerprint was on the knife. But neither the prosecution nor the defense conducted testing on any of the more than 150 bloodstains that were photographed and swabbed from the crime scene. And Aguirre’s lawyer didn’t even view, much less retain a forensic expert to examine, any of the 197 items of evidence that were collected in this case. Even though the evidence was consistent with Aguirre’s version of events, which he testified to at trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
In August 2011, Aguirre’s new counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region, in consultation with the Innocence Project, sought DNA testing of some of the previously untested evidence. None of the testing of more than 84 items matched Aguirre. Most matched to the two victims, but there were two bloodstains that were identified as coming from Williams’ daughter (and Bareis’ granddaughter), Samantha Williams. When the rest of the evidence was tested, none of the stains matched Aguirre, but another six were identified as Samantha Williams’. Samantha has made multiple statements (one of which was captured on police video) suggesting her own culpability for murders and witnesses testified at a hearing that Samantha and her mother had a troubled relationship and a heated argument the night of the murders.