Florida Man Who Took Plea to Avoid Death Penalty Posthumously Exonerated of 1983 Rape-Murder

Broward County, Florida prosecutors moved to posthumously exonerate Ronald Stewart (pictured) of a rape and murder he did not commit. Stewart pled no contest to the 1983 rape and murder of Regina Harrison after he was threatened with the death penalty. The actual killer, whose guilt has since been confirmed by DNA testing, went on to murder at least two more women after Harrison.

On March 21, 2019, prosecutors released a statement announcing that they were seeking to overturn Stewart’s conviction in Harrison’s rape and murder after the confession of another man, Jack Jones, led them to test DNA evidence from the case. “Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected at this time to reflect the results of the new information and evidence uncovered since November 2018,” Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon said in a joint news release with the Hollywood Police Department. “It is also important to try to determine if Jones killed other victims. … We regret that [Stewart] pleaded no contest to a murder he did not commit and that this diverted attention from the real killer.”

Stewart’s no-contest plea was not an admission of guilt. At his sentencing, his lawyer told the court, "Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea." Counsel pointed out that the evidence of guilt was weak, since fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Stewart and key testimony came from unreliable jailhouse informants. However, Stewart feared that he would be sentenced to death because he had previously been convicted of a series of rapes. He was serving concurrent 50-year sentences for Harrison’s murder and three other rapes when he died in prison in 2008.

The re-examination of the case came as a result of a letter written by Arkansas death-row prisoner Jack Jones, prior to his 2017 execution. Jones sent his sister the letter with instructions not to read it for a year after his death. In that letter, Jones confessed to Harrison’s murder, writing, "So, you just let [Harrison’s family] know that I am deeply sorry, that I couldn’t rest easy until they knew the truth. Let them know that in the end I became a better person, and I did the best I could to be as much as I could for others, out of respect for the ones I’ve harmed." His sister gave the letter to detective John Curcio, who reopened the investigation and had DNA evidence tested. In 1991, Jones killed Lori Barrett, a tourist who was visiting Fort Lauderdale. Four years later, he murdered Mary Phillips in Arkansas.

The case is one of a growing number of exonerations in which the threat of the death penalty has induced false confessions or caused innocent defendants to enter guilty or no-contest pleas to crimes they did not commit. Recent high-profile examples of this phenomenon include the Beatrice Six in Nebraska and the Norfolk Four in Virginia.

(Jessica Lipscomb, Broward Prosecutors Exonerate Man From 1983 Rape, Murder of College Student, Miami New Times, March 21, 2019; Kristin Lam, Ronald Stewart confessed to a 1983 murder and died in prison. He didn't do it, prosecutors say, USA Today, March 21, 2019; Rafael Olmeda, A serial rapist took the blame for South Florida woman’s murder. A serial killer was really the culprit., South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 21, 2019.) See Innocence.