Florida

Florida

Clemente Aguirre Exonerated From Florida's Death Row After DNA Implicates Prosecution Witness

With newly discovered confessions and DNA evidence pointing to the prosecution’s chief witness as the actual killer, prosecutors dropped all charges against Clemente Javier Aguirre (pictured, center, at his exoneration) in a Seminole County, Florida courtroom on November 5, 2018. The dismissal of the charges made Aguirre the 164th wrongfully convicted death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973 and the 28th in Florida. The announcement that prosecutors were dropping all charges against Aguirre came after jury selection for his retrial had already begun. The Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in 2016. “Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Joshua Dubin, one of Aguirre's 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.”

Aguirre was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 for the murder of two neighbors: an elderly woman and her adult daughter. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he had discovered the women only after they had been killed. He did not report the murders to authorities, he said, because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared deportation. Evidence has increasingly pointed to the victims' daughter and granddaughter, Samantha Williams, as the likely perpetrator, and an affidavit filed last week undermined Williams's alibi. DNA testing had revealed Williams's blood in several locations at the crime scene but had found none of Aguirre’s blood. Williams also has reportedly confessed to the crime on at least five occasions. A sworn affidavit from the wife of Mark Van Sandt, Williams’s boyfriend at the time of the crime and her key alibi witness, says that Van Sandt told his wife he saw Williams crawling out of his bedroom window on the night of the murders. Prosecutors said that they dropped charges “based upon new evidence that materially affects the credibility of a critical State witness.”

Aguirre is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, and his attorneys say they plan to file an asylum application on his behalf. Joshua Dubin said in a statement: “If there were ever a person that deserved a chance to become a United States citizen, it is Clemente Aguirre. He has been fully exonerated, so we are going to be asking the immigration judge to set a bond and allow Clemente to be released while his application for asylum proceeds.” Aguirre is the third foreign national to be exonerated in the last year. Gabriel Solache was exonerated in Illinois on December 21, 2017 and Vicente Benavides was released on April 19, 2018 after nearly 26 years on California's death row. Both Solache and Benavides are Mexican nationals. While there has been one exoneration for about every nine executions in the U.S. overall, there has been one exoneration of a foreign national for every 6.17 executions of a foreign national, suggesting that foreign nationals may be more likely to face wrongful convictions and death sentences than U.S. citizens.

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence Imposed in Violation of State and Federal Constitutions

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence imposed on William Roger Davis, III (pictured), even though Davis's death sentence violates both the Florida and federal constitutions. In a decision issued on October 25, 2018, the court refused to redress the unconstitutionality of the death sentence—imposed by a trial court judge after a bare 7-5 majority of jurors had recommended death—ruling that during post-conviction proceedings before the trial court, Davis had waived review of all claims relating to his conviction and death sentence. The appeals court held that this waiver barred Davis from renewing his challenge to the unconstitutional sentencing process on appeal.  

Davis was convicted and sentenced to death in Seminole County (Tallahassee) for an October 2009 murder, kidnapping, and sexual battery. After hearing Davis accept responsibility for the crime and testify about his mental state when it occurred, five jurors recommended that he be spared the death penalty. However, at the time of trial, Florida was one of only three states that permitted judges to impose a death sentence based upon a less than unanimous jury vote for death, and its death-penalty statute directed the trial court to make its own independent findings of fact, independently weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and impose a sentence of life without parole or death. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Davis's death sentence, and in January 2016, one year after his conviction became final, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedures. In Hurst v. Florida, the court ruled that reserving the ultimate fact-finding on aggravating circumstances for the trial judge violated Florida capital defendants' Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. In October 2018, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. State that this Sixth Amendment violation was prejudicial to a capital defendant whenever the jury had not unanimously recommended a death verdict, and it further held in Perry v. State that the Florida constitution required a unanimous jury vote for death before a judge could consider imposing the death penalty. 

In his state post-conviction proceedings, Davis's lawyers challenged the constitutionality of his non-unanimous death sentence. However, while the case was pending, Davis sought to withdraw his petition. In a letter to the judge, Davis wrote that he did not want a life sentence and did not want to subject either his family or the victim's family to a new sentencing hearing. The court found him competent to waive his rights, and—notwithstanding the invalidity of the proceedings resulting in his death sentence—dismissed all of Davis's guilt- and penalty-stage claims. The Davis case is the latest case in which so-called "volunteers"—capital defendants or death-row prisoners who have been deemed competent to waive their appeals—have been permitted to seek execution in the face of unreliable or unconstitutional death sentences. Volunteers comprise ten percent of all prisoners executed in the United States since the 1970s. On October 29, 2018, Rodney Berget—a former Special Olympics participant—became the 148th volunteer to be executed, despite evidence of intellectual disability that led national experts to conclude that he was ineligible for the death penalty.

As Capital Retrial Begins, Former Judge Says Defendant Should Not Be Convicted

As Seminole County prosecutors seek the death penalty against Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin a second time despite substantial evidence implicating another suspect, the Florida judge who initially sentenced Aguirre-Jarquin to death now says he should not be convicted. Retired Judge O.H. Eaton (pictured), who presided over Aguirre-Jarquin’s double-murder trial in 2006, said he now believes that the case is a “poster child” for the flaws in the death penalty system. “The evidence I heard during the trial [in 2006] substantiated the verdict,” Eaton told the Orlando Sentinel. “The evidence I’ve heard now does not. ... If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ordered the jury’s verdict overturned.” 

Aguirre-Jarquin, an undocumented Honduran immigrant, was convicted of murdering his next-door neighbors, Cheryl Williams and her mother Carol Bareis, who were stabbed more than 130 times. Eaton imposed death sentences for both murders, based on non-unanimous 7-5 and 9-3 jury recommendations for death. Aguirre-Jarquin’s post-conviction lawyers later discovered that the mentally ill daughter and granddaughter of the victims, Samantha Williams—who had provided eyewitness testimony against Aguirre-Jarquin—had confessed to at least five different people that she had killed her relatives. She told one person: “I’m crazy, I’m evil and I killed my grandmother and my mother.” DNA results from blood evidence at the crime scene also implicated Williams. The Innocence Project, which assisted in Aguirre-Jarquin’s post-conviction representation, found that “[n]one of the DNA found on the 84 items that were tested matched Aguirre,” but was a match to Williams and the two victims. Eight bloodstains from Williams were found in four different rooms, each, the Innocence Project said, ”inches away from the victims’ blood." Based on this evidence, the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 unanimously overturned Aguirre-Jarquin's conviction. Seminole County prosecutors nonetheless decided to retry Aguirre-Jarquin, simultaneously arguing that Williams’s mental health problems make her confessions unreliable, but relying upon her testimony against Aguirre-Jarquin in his 2006 trial. They also argue that Aguirre-Jarquin—who says he went to his neighbors’ home to get beer, found their bodies, and tried to revive them—attempted to hide clothing with the victims’ blood on it, and did not call police after discovering his neighbors had been killed. Aguirre-Jarquin said he did not call the police because he feared deportation because of his undocumented status.

Florida has more death-row exonerations than any other state, with 27. Ninety percent of those exonerations came in cases in which one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence.  

Amnesty International Issues Report on the Death Penalty in Florida

A new report by Amnesty International says Florida's approach to redressing the nearly 400 unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences imposed in the state has deepened its status as an outlier on death-penalty issues by "add[ing] an extra layer of arbitrariness to [the state's] already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system." The report, released on August 23, 2018, examines the impact of Florida's reponse to U.S. and Florida Supreme Court rulings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State that overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute. That response, Amnesty said, would permit the execution of more than 170 prisoners whom the state acknowledges were sentenced to death under unconstitutional sentencing procedures. Executing those prisoners, Amnesty wrote, will violate "well-established" international human rights law requiring that any person "convicted of a capital offence must benefit when a change of law following charge or conviction imposes a lighter penalty for that crime." In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a state practice that permitted judges to impose a death sentence despite the recommendations of one or more jurors that a life sentence should be imposed. However, the court then declined to enforce that ruling in cases that had completed direct appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Ring v. Arizona in June 2002 that capital defendants had a right to have a jury decide all facts that were necessary to impose the death penalty. The Amnesty International report described the Florida court's refusal to enforce the constitution in cases in which it acknowledged that constitutional violations had occurred as "fear of too much justice." "Finality won out over fairness when the Florida Supreme Court decided the Hurst retroactivity issue," the report said. The report highlights the cases of prisoners with serious mental illness, those with "actual or borderline intellectual disability," youthful offenders with backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse who were condemned in unconstitutional sentencing trials, and the wrongful impact of race on sentencing decisions, and argues that Florida's refusal to review these cases is not only arbitrary, but also violates international human rights norms and the constitutional principle that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for "the worst of the worst" cases. The report also discusses Florida's long history of employing unconstitutional death-penalty practices that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. It spotlights the case of James Hitchcock, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death four times for a crime he committed at age 20. The first three times, his death sentence was overturned, including a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Florida's statutory restriction on the mitigating evidence the sentencing judge and jury could consider. The fourth time, he was sentenced to death after a non-unanimous jury vote, but was denied review of that constitutional violation. "The death penalty is no way to impart justice," said Amnesty's Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas. "Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all." In the meantime, the report urges all officials to “ensure an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone with intellectual disability or mental disability,” “ensure that all capital case decision makers are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding youth and emotional and psychological immaturity,” and “facilitate a public education campaign to raise awareness across Florida of the costs, risks and flaws associated with the state’s death penalty.”

Florida Justices Halt Execution as Handwritten Notes Contradict Police Testimony

The Florida Supreme Court has halted the execution of Jose Antonio Jimenez (pictured), scheduled for August 14, 2018. The unanimous one-page order issued by the court on August 10 did not explain the reasons the justices granted the stay. However, Jimenez’s motion for a stay referenced 80 pages of police records that, Jimenez’s lawyer said, had not previously been provided to the defense. Those records—which were part of 1,000 pages of documents turned over to the defense two weeks before the scheduled execution—included hand-written notes by the investigating detectives that appear to contradict pre-trial testimony police had given in the case. The motion, filed by Jimenez's lawyer, Marty McClain, said the “previously unseen notes" contained "surprising and downright shocking information” that the lead detective (identified as a Detective Ojeda) and a second police investigator (identified as Detective Diecidue) gave “false and/or misleading” testimony “in order to facilitate Mr. Jimenez’s conviction” when they were deposed by Jimenez’s trial counsel. McClain told The News Service of Florida, “[t]he new documents show dishonest cops,” which has added significance in this case because Jimenez has maintained his innocence “and the conviction is premised on Ojeda telling the truth.” Jimenez also sought a stay pending the United States Supreme Court’s disposition of a Missouri death-penalty case, Bucklew v. Precythe, that could clarify the standard for determining when a state’s lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional. Jimenez has argued that Florida’s use of the drug etomidate as a sedative during three-drug executions creates an unconstitutional risk of a torturous death. During Florida’s last execution, Eric Branch screamed when the execution drugs were administered. McClain said that expert testimony in another case had indicated that a quarter of executions using etomidate could result in prisoners screaming in pain. “Is it OK to have your condemned people scream 25 percent of the time?,” McClain said. “And what about the torture to those who are next, who know that 25 percent of the time people are in pain and screaming? Are they going to be the one?” The Florida Supreme Court has set a schedule for briefs to be filed in the case, with briefing concluding on August 28. The court will then decide whether it will hear oral argument in the case.

Florida Juries Reject Death Sentences for Four Men, Highlighting Impact of Unanimity Requirement

Juries in two Broward County, Florida death-penalty trials have handed down life sentences for four capital defendants in the span of one week, highlighting the effect of a new Florida law requiring the unanimous agreement of the jury before a defendant can be sentenced to death. On July 16, a Broward County jury spared three defendants—Eloyn Ingraham, Bernard Forbes, and Andre Delancy—whom it had convicted in March of murdering a Broward sheriff's deputy. Three days later, another Broward jury rejected the death penalty for Eric Montgomery, after having convicted him in April of the murders of his wife and stepdaughter. The verdicts marked the third time in four capital trials since Florida adopted the jury unanimity requirement that Broward juries have opted for life sentences. The sole exception was the case of Peter Avsenew, who represented himself in the penalty-phase after firing his lawyers, presented no penalty-phase defense, and told the jury he had "no regrets" for his actions and was "proud of the decisions [he'd] made." South Florida juries in Palm Beach County also have recommended life sentences in the three first-degree murder trials conducted there since September 2017. In March 2017, the Florida legislature changed its death penalty law in response to two Florida Supreme Court decisions in October 2016 that declared the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendations for death to be unconstitutional. Those decisions were based on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which ruled that Florida's previous death-penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by giving judges, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. Florida's criminal law required unanimity for every other decision made by a jury, and the 2017 amendment brought Florida's law into line with the laws of virtually every other death-penalty state. Only Alabama still permits a trial judge to impose the death penalty based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. 

Florida Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence, Orders Hearing for Prisoner Convicted by Anti-Gay Juror

The Florida Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence imposed on Eric Kurt Patrick (pictured) and ordered the lower court to conduct a hearing on the failure of Patrick’s lawyer to adequately question a juror who admitted his belief that gay people are “morally depraved” might affect his judgment of guilt or innocence. Patrick was convicted of the 2005 murder of Steven Schumacher, a gay man who had brought Patrick home after meeting him in a park, and was sentenced to death after a bare 7-5 majority of jurors voted to recommend the death penalty. The court on June 14, 2018, reversed Patrick’s death sentence based upon its 2016 decision in Hurst v. State, which declared that death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death violated the state and federal constitutions. The appeals court directed the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Patrick’s lawyer’s handling of jury selection was ineffective. During jury selection, one juror admitted he “would have a bias if [he] knew the perpetrator was homosexual.” When asked about his ability to evaluate guilt based only the evidence proven beyond a reasonable doubt, he said, “Put it this way, if I felt the person was a homosexual, I personally believe that person is morally depraved enough that he might lie, might steal, might kill.” The juror then answered “yes” when asked if this bias might affect his deliberations. Patrick, who does not identify as gay, was homeless and acknowledged that he had engaged in sexual activity with other men to support himself. On the night of the murder, the men were in bed together after Patrick had given Schumacher a massage, when Schumacher attempted to initiate anal sex and Patrick “cut loose on” the victim, beating him to death. Patrick’s appeal lawyers argued that defense counsel should have struck the juror because of his clear bias; prosecutors argued that Schumacher, not Patrick, was gay and that Patrick’s trial lawyer accepted the juror for strategic reasons. The court wrote that “[a]pplying this evidence to the juror’s voir dire answers establishes that, by the juror’s own acknowledgement on the record, he was predisposed to believe that Patrick is morally depraved enough to have committed the charged offenses. Although Patrick does not identify as homosexual and indicated in his confession that his sexual activity with men was for material support rather than personal fulfillment,” the opinion said, “these points do not eliminate the bias that this juror said he would feel based on the evidence that trial counsel and the trial court knew the jury would hear during trial.” However, the court said it did not have enough evidence to decide the issue. Remanding the case for an evidentiary hearing, it wrote, “[o]n this record, we can neither ignore the possibility that counsel’s failure to challenge this juror was strategic nor conclude that it was.” 

Prosecutors Withdraw Death Penalty, Agree to Guilty Pleas in Two High Profile Cases With Multiple Victims

State and federal prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas by defendants charged with multiple killings in two unrelated high-profile murder cases. On May 4, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dropped the death penalty against Darren Vann (pictured, left), who had killed seven women. On May 1, federal prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty against Esteban Santiago (pictured right), who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida in 2017. Military records reflect that Vann—a former Hawk Missile system operator who had earned a National Defense Service Medal—was prematurely discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 for conduct described as "incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards." Vann had been capitally charged in the strangulation deaths of two women after having been released from prison in Texas in 2013 where he had served time for a rape conviction. County prosecutors agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for his admission of guilt in their murders and the murders of five other women in an area of Gary, Indiana, frequented by sex workers and drug users. He was arrested in October 2014 after police found one victim's body in a motel bathtub. Vann told police he had killed six other women and later led authorities to their remains. Marvin Clinton, the longtime boyfriend of one of the victims and father of her child, called the death penalty "the easy way out" and said he preferred than Vann be sentenced to life without parole. "I want him to suffer," Clinton said. "These women will haunt him for the rest of his life.” Federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement that would avoid a protracted death-penalty trial for Santiago, a severely mentally ill Iraqi War veteran who suffers from auditory hallucinations and is being medicated for schizophrenia. Santiago opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport two months after having been released from a psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska. At that time, Santiago told local FBI agents in Anchorage that he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Local police then confiscated his handgun, but returned it to him weeks before the airport shooting. Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen, said Santiago has expressed remorse for the shooting. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom has ordered Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure he is legally competent to plead guilty and has scheduled a competency hearing for May 23.

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