DNA helped send Clemente Javier “Shorty” Aguirre to death row in 2006 for the murder of two Altamonte Springs neighbors. Now a team of attorneys have used a new round of DNA testing to prove the innocence Aguirre has been maintaining from the start. This round of DNA testing implicates the victim’s daughter, Samantha Williams, as the real perpetrator.
Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, Aguirre’s next-door neighbors, were mother and daughter found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004. An undocumented Honduran, Aguirre initially told police that he didn’t know anything about the murders, though later that same day he admitted that he had discovered their bodies around six a.m. when he went to their house hoping to get some beer. When he found Cheryl Williams’ body lying in the foyer, he rolled her over to check for a pulse. Once he realized she was dead, he feared the killer may still be present and grabbed the knife near Cheryl’s body before walking through the rest of the house. When he realized no one was there, he panicked, discarded the knife, went home and stuffed his now-bloody clothes into a trash bag and threw them on the roof. He didn’t report the crime because he feared deportation.
At trial, the State prosecution presented DNA evidence to show the the victims’ blood was on Aguirre’s clothes, shoes, and the bloody knife, which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony of how he discovered the bodies. The defense, unfortunately, conducted no tests on other bloodstains nor did they even view any of the 197 items of evidence that were collected in this case, much less retain a forensic expert to examine them. The State also offered testimony from a “bloodstain pattern expert” who claimed the stains on Aguirre’s clothes were “impact” or “cast off” rather than “transfer” (which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony) and alleged that the murders occurred around eight or nine a.m., arguing in closing that Aguirre may have still been in the home when Samantha Williams’ then-boyfriend came to get her work clothes and discovered the bodies. The defense failed to retain any blood pattern, pathologist, or other forensic experts to counter the State’s theories or support Aguirre’s account.
Furthermore, at no time during the trial did Aguirre’s lawyer inquire about or otherwise present the jury with any of the readily-available evidence that Samantha was mentally ill, unstable, and had a volatile and at times violent relationship with her mother, including at least one prior threat to kill her.
On at least three occasions since the murders, Samantha has become so violent and uncontrollable that she has been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities. Nearly three years prior to the murders, Samantha had been committed to psychiatric care by her mother, during which time she threatened to kill her mother in the presence of others. Then in December 2007, she was videoed as she repeatedly banged her head against the interior of a police car, sobbing, “my family died from me,” and then threatened to “murder” the officer who had taken her into custody. Again in August 2010, police were called to her home after she tried to set herself on fire and told a neighbor that “demons are in her head and caused her to kill her family.”
The attorney who represented Aguirre at his trial has been found constitutionally ineffective by the courts in at least one other death penalty case he handled. In total, Aguirre’s trial attorney has at least ten former clients presently on Florida’s death row.
In August 2011, Aguirre’s new counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle in Florida, in consultation with the Innocence Project, filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing which found that most of the bloodstains were traced to one or both victims, while no blood from Aguirre was found at the scene. By contrast, two distinct bloodstains were found to come from Samantha and were located in close proximity to the victims’ blood. Although opposed by the State, a second round of testing revealed a total of eight different bloodstains have been identified as Samantha’s, which were spread out over four rooms of the home, each near blood from one or both victims.
At the hearing that began in Sanford, Florida on May 13, 2013, Aguirre’s lawyers will be asking for post-conviction relief based on three separate grounds:
- that Aguirre’s lawyer was ineffective for failing to conduct DNA testing and investigate Samantha’s mental health history,
- the new DNA evidence and pre- and post-trial violence by Samantha constitute newly discovered evidence that would have led the jury to an acquittal, and
- the new evidence establishes Aguirre’s innocence.
In what seems like such a clear-cut case of innocence, it is certainly disturbing to consider the lengths the State has gone to in order to protect Samantha Williams from conviction, despite her long history of violence, instability, and pure animosity, while turning a blind eye to the injustices suffered by Aguirre. Should Aguirre be exonerated, the State will have fought against the freedom of an innocent person and possibly undercut their ability to prosecute the real perpetrator. This would be the ultimate injustice to both Mr. Aguirre and the victims in this case.
Aguirre is represented by Maria DeLiberato and Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region. Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and Seth Miller and Melissa Montle of the Innocence of Florida are serving as co-counsel.