Murder charges dropped against death row inmate wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years

Murder charges dropped against death row inmate wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years

After a night of drinking in 2004, Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, went searching for beer in his neighbor's home. Instead, he found his neighbors' dead bodies. The two victims, Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, had been stabbed multiple times.

Aguirre-Jarquin, then 24, told authorities that he got blood on his clothes when he checked the victims' pulses, picked up the knife because he thought the killer might still be around, and threw the weapon into the bushes out of panic. He claimed he didn't call the police to report the murders because he was scared of being deported.

What followed was worse than deportation: Aguirre-Jarquin was arrested, convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. He spent nearly 15 years behind bars, with 10 of them on death row, and maintained his innocence the whole time. In 2011, his case was taken on by The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. The group called Aguirre-Jarquin's court-appointed attorney "woefully inaccurate" for not requesting any DNA testing at his trial.

Experts conducted new DNA tests on crime scene evidence. Out of 100 previously untested bloodstains, zero belonged to Aguirre-Jarquin, and eight belonged to Samantha Williams, the daughter of Cheryl Williams and the granddaughter of Carol Bareis. In addition, Aguirre-Jarquin's lawyers uncovered testimony from Williams' friends and acquaintances, who stated she confessed to the killings. In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court heard this evidence, and unanimously voted to overturn Aguirre-Jarquin's conviction.

Prosecutors planned to charge him again, and jury selection for the second trial had begun. However, new testimony surfaced that seriously undermined Williams' alibi. Her boyfriend at the time, Mark Van Sandt, originally vouched for her in 2004, telling authorities that she was home with him the night of the murders. Now he says that he saw Williams crawl out the window. Prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against Aguirre-Jarquin, freeing him from incarceration at last.

"Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn't commit," stated one of his attorneys, Joshua Dubin. "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." Indeed, Aguirre-Jarquin is the 28th person to be absolved of the death penalty in Florida.

On Monday morning, Aguirre-Jarquin gave an emotional statement in the courtrooms, thanking his lawyers for their support. "Besides my mother, nobody believed me," he said, as reported by The Orlando-Sentinel. The wrongfully imprisoned man, now 38, was partially implicated in the killings through Williams' testimony. When asked if he had a message for her, he replied, "I forgive you. Now it’s on you and God."

As of this writing, Williams has not been yet charged with killing her mother and grandmother. As for Aguirre-Jarquin, he faces possible deportation, but his attorneys are pursuing a claim for asylum in the United States. "If there were ever a person that deserved a chance to become a United States citizen, it is Clemente Aguirre," stated Dubin.