Posts Tagged ‘Florida Supreme Court’

Florida Supreme Court Grants Re-trial for Death Row Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 28, 2016 @ 4:42 PM — Comments (0)


In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Clemente Aguirre based on DNA evidence that points towards another suspect for the murder of Cheryl and Carol Williams in 2004.

Aguirre was convicted in 2006 for the double homicide after the prosecution found that 64 out of 67 bloody shoe impressions found inside the victims’ residence matched Aguirre’s footwear. In addition, forensic evidence showed that his clothes contained traces of blood that belonged to both Cheryl and Carol Williams. However, Aguirre has maintained his innocence and testified that he had found the bodies while trying to take some beer from his neighbor’s house. He attempted to revive Cheryl Williams and, once he was unsuccessful, ran without calling the police because he is currently an illegal immigrant who could face deportation.

After being denied by a circuit court on his appeal, the Florida Supreme Court has found that they “agree with Aguirre that the cumulative effect of the newly discovered evidence requires a new trial.” At the postconviction evidentiary hearing, Aguirre and his legal team showed that on 150 previously untested bloodstains from the crime scene, his blood was not present. Additionally, it showed that eight of the bloodstains matched someone else entirely: Samantha Williams, Cheryl’s daughter. Samantha had testified at Aguirre’s trial stating that she had found him “standing over her bed” at 2AM months before the murders. In addition, it was her boyfriend who found the bodies and was also her alibi, even though he testified that at the time of the murders he was “dead to the world” asleep.

However, the newly discovered evidence was not simply limited to the presence of Samantha’s blood at the crime scene. There is also proof that Samantha Williams also confessed to the double homicide to four different people.

The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion specifies that Samantha told her friend in 2010 that “demons in her head made her do it.” She also confessed to three of her former neighbors (in three separate instances) to the crime. While the State stated that her confessions were inadmissible as hearsay, the Supreme Court ruled that “the trial court erred by excluding … the testimony of three witnesses that another person had admitted, on three separate occasions, to committing the murder of which the defendant was convicted.”

The Court concluded their decision by stating that “adding the newly discovered evidence to the pictures changes the focus entirely: No longer is Aguirre the creepy figure who appears over Samantha’s bed in the middle of the night; he is now the scapegoat for her crimes.” Because of the reasonable doubt this casts over Aguirre’s culpability, he will receive a re-trial.

To read the Florida Supreme Court’s full opinion, click here.



Innocence Project of Florida, , , ,

Florida Supreme Court Sets New Standards for State Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 18, 2016 @ 4:29 PM — Comments (0)


The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional. The Court has additionally called for death sentences to be determined by a unanimous jury. This news has caused a major shift in Florida’s criminal justice system with a large number of inmates awaiting possible re-sentencing on Death Row.

““We … hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” said the Florida Supreme Court.

Now, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature must return to the drawing board, throwing out their original law which allowed for 10 out of 12 members of a jury to be able to impose a death sentence.

What does this mean for all the inmates on death row? Potentially, over 400 of the prisoners on death row in Florida now have a potential way to seek less severe sentences and be taken off death row altogether. This ruling will also offer greater changes to innocent people who have been given a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. “Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases,” said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

While the way this ruling will affect past cases is unclear, its significance is clear and a sign of the growing doubt being cast on the purpose and justice behind the death penalty in the United States.

Innocence Project of Florida, , , ,

Eyewitness Misidentification: The Most Unreliable Form of Evidence

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 28, 2012 @ 11:06 AM — Comments (0)

Between 1977 and 1979 the Bird Road Rapist haunted State Road 976 in Florida, attacking over 25 women.

In 1980 Luis Diaz, a husband and father of three, was named the Bird Road Rapist and convicted of eight charges of rape. The identification and testimonies from eight victims landed Diaz with multiple life sentences.

During the 26 years he was imprisoned, Diaz maintained his innocence and was adamant that he was innocent of all charges. As his story began to travel, suspicions about the case began to surface, notably because Diaz didn’t match the original description given by the witnesses.

Even though two witnesses recanted their statements, it wasn’t until 2005 that Diaz was exonerated as a result of DNA testing.

“Eyewitness misidentification is the most unreliable form of evidence; however, it’s the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, accounting for 75 percent of convictions that have been overturned by DNA Evidence.”  -Innocence Project

More than a third of the cases with eyewitness testimony involved multiple eyewitnesses. In Luis Diaz’s case, eight women identified him as their attacker, and all eight were wrong.
Exoneree Misidentifications

Research and Science

In most criminal cases, an eyewitness is crucial to the outcome of the trial. A strong witness could essentially lead to a win. However, the research has shown that many inaccuracies lie within the practice.

During the past 30 years, psychologists have found several variables that contribute to eyewitness misidentification.  Here are a few of their findings:

Estimator vs. Systematic Variables

Gary A. Wells, an American psychologist, has conducted extensive research on eyewitness memory and identification. His Applied Eye-Witness Testimony research, in which he differentiates estimator and systematic variables, has been highly cited and used to further understand the errors of eyewitness identification.

Estimator Variables are aspects of eyewitness identification that can’t be controlled by the criminal justice system. It includes where the crime took place, visibility, and if a weapon was present during an assault. Research has shown that victims tend to focus more on the weapon than the assailant’s face during an attack.

Another major estimator variable is race. It has been noted that it’s more difficult to identify a stranger of a different race than one’s own. For example, white Americans have more trouble identifying black Americans than they do whites and vice versa. The reasoning relies more on exposure to other races rather than prejudices.

Systematic Variables are aspects that can be controlled by the criminal justice system. It includes the way lineups are conducted, how police interact with the witness, and other identification procedures. The research behind systematical variables is far more advanced than estimator variables because it is more valuable to understand what the legal system can do to prevent misidentification.

Controlling Systematic Variables

The U.S Department of Justice released Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement  in 1999 that could help improve the facilitation of identification procedures. The guide suggests how investigators should conduct themselves and the investigation from initial report of the crime to the documentation of line up results.  The research conducted has made an impact that has lead to some changes; however, in order to fully control systematic variables, there are many reforms still needed.

Sequential vs Simultaneous Lineups

Sequential lineups are conducted when the witness is shown one member of the lineup at a time, whereas, in simultaneous lineups all members are presented at the same time. Research has found less errors are made when a sequential line up is administered.

A negative factor eliminated with sequential lineups is relative judgement.  During lineups witnesses tend to compare lineup participants with one another instead of their memory of the assailant. This leads the witness to choose a person who resembles their assailant more than the others, but not the person who resembles the assailant in their memory.

Eliminating Biased Lineups

There are many different elements that contribute to a biased lineup such as line up size, fillers, and who administrates it. Luckily, there are solutions that can eliminate most biases that can lead to a misidentification.

“A lineup is biased when a witness with a poor (or absent) memory is able to guess the identity of the suspect at a rate greater than chance expectation” -Roy S. Malpass and Colin G. Tredoux

A correct lineup size and arrangement is critical to achieve a non-biased line up. The Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement suggest a minimum of five fillers during a lineup. A filler is a person who is not a suspect but is used in a lineup to eliminate errors. All fillers should match the witness’s description. A lineup will become biased when the suspect stands out among all the other members participating.

Double Blind Administration

History has shown that there are some officers of the law who are completely bias in their line of work; however, this isn’t true for all police. Even the most honorable officer can influence a witness without intentionally doing so.

Wells first suggested double blind lineups in 1988; both scientists and the Innocence Projects around the country agree it’s one of the best way to eliminate biases.

A double blind administration is one where the person administering the lineup has no idea who the suspect is. Sometimes detectives can send nonverbal signs (a smile or a frown) to a witness during the procedure and is completely unaware that he is doing so.

In a double blind the lineup, most of the nonverbal communication will be eliminated because the administrator is as unaware as the witness that the suspect may or may not be included in the lineup.

Picking Cotton

In 1985 Ronald Cotton was convicted on two counts of rape and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to 54 years in prison.

One of his victims, Jennifer Thompson,made it a priority to study her assailant’s face during her attack. She wanted to to memorize as much about him as possible so when the time came, she would be able to identify him.

However, just like in the Diaz case, Thompson was wrong and DNA evidence is what finally proved Cotton’s innocence.

“I had contributed to taking away 11 years of this man’s life, and if indeed we had been wrong–I felt so bad.” -Jennifer Thompson

Even after it was proven that Cotton was innocent and the real perpetrator, Bobby Poole, was identified, Thompson still had difficulties accepting the fact that Cotton wasn’t her attacker.

“I don’t know. The DNA tests, the science tells me that we had the wrong guy. It was Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton says it is not him, it was Bobby Poole. They do look very similar, it is almost frightening how similar they look to each other… I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have to accept the answer that has been given to me and put faith in our system.”

Bobby Poole            Ronald Cotton

Today, Thompson and Cotton travel the United States pushing for legal reforms. They have published a book together, Picking Cotton, which goes in depth about the experiences of both authors.

A Step Forward for Florida

In Florida eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in 10 out of 13 (77 percent) of the DNA exonerations, two points higher than the national average.

On Dec. 29, 2011, the Committee on Standard Jury Instruction in Criminal Cases proposed a set of instructions to be given to jurors on eyewitness identification. The proposal was adopted by the Florida Supreme Court on Nov. 21, 2012.

Instructions are to be given to jurors if eyewitness identification is a disputed issue and if requested. Jurors are asked to consider the credibility of the witness by questioning any inconsistent identifications made by the witness, if the difference in the offender’s and eyewitness’s race or ethnic group may have affected the accuracy of the identification, whether the identification was based on the witness’s memory or a result of influences or suggestiveness, and six other factors.

When the proposal was made, the Innocence Project of Florida filed comments pointing out the inadequacies of the instructions.The comment filed reads:

While the committee’s proposed jury instruction touches on a number of important considerations for a jury evaluating eyewitness evidence, the proposed instruction is inadequate in two principle ways: (1) it is not a cautionary instruction as it doesn’t warn the jury of the dangers inherent in eyewitness evidence, nor (2) does it provide any comprehensive guidance on how jurors should weigh certain factors arising in cases with eyewitness evidence.

Although there is more that can be done, IPF’s CEO, Mike Minerva, acknowledges that this is a step in the right direction.

Your Thoughts

The science and facts prove that convicting a person solely on an eyewitnesses identification and testimony can be faulty. Yet, people are still are convicted based on one person’s identification. What changes to eyewitness identification do you think should be implemented in order to prevent innocent people from being imprisoned?

Innocence Project of Florida,justice,litigation,policy, , , , , , , ,

Florida Innocence Commission Meeting

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 17, 2012 @ 12:44 PM — Comments (0)

On Monday Feb. 13, 2012, the Florida Innocence Commission met at the Supreme Court of Florida. The meeting focused on two of the major contributing factors of wrongful convictions: informants/jailhouse snitches and improper/invalid scientific evidence. The first several hours of the meeting were spent discussing the various options available to the Commission with regard to snitches.

The Commission considered giving recommendations for a set of detailed jury instructions in the case of informant testimony, instituting a rule requiring pretrial screenings to determine the reliability of informants, and amending the discovery rules in the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 3.220). Ultimately, a majority of the Commission decided against recommending  pretrial reliability hearings. Commission member Mary Barzee-Flores asserted that it would be inappropriate for the courts to exclude witnesses from testifying because they were deemed unreliable. She said, “it is in the province of the jury to determine whether or not a given witnesses testimony is reliable.” The Commission was, however, in favor of creating a special jury instruction to be used in cases with informant testimony. The Commission moved to recommend the use of an instruction informing juries that some witnesses, like informants or snitches, may have been offered certain things (such as safety from prosecution in another case), in exchange for their testimony and  should thus be treated with more caution than the testimony of other witnesses.

The Commission also moved to have a subcommittee that has previously discussed amending the discovery Rules of Criminal Procedure to continue discussing the language to be used in amending that rule.

The next meeting will take place in Orlando on March 12 at 9:30 a.m. The Commission will continue discussing improper/invalid science and the possibly reforms to prevent their use as evidence in trials. The commission will continue meeting until June 2012, when they will release their final report detailing their findings and recommendations.

judicial,justice,legislation,policy,prison,Science, , , , , ,

Report Says States Looking to Cut Costs Should Consider Abandoning Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 28, 2009 @ 11:59 AM — Comments (1)

This month, the Death Penalty Information Center released a report titled “Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis” (view a PDF of the full report HERE).  At a time when many states are facing major budgetary crises, the report urges states to take advantage of potentially significant savings by ending “the enormously expensive and wasteful death penalty that is draining state budgets.” The report also points out that the high cost of capital punishment is not going unnoticed. So far this year, 11 state legislatures have considered bills to abolish the death penalty, and its cost was a critical factor in many of those debates. New Mexico abolished capital punishment, a Connecticut bill to do the same was vetoed by the governor, and two states, Colorado and Montana, saw bills pass one house of the legislature, the report says.

The report also provides results of a nationwide poll of 500 randomly selected police chiefs across the country. On a list of factors “most important for reducing violent crime,” the death penalty ranked last in the poll, having been picked by only 1 percent of the chiefs. The police officials were not opposed to death sentences in principle, but their responses manifested skepticism about the overall effectiveness of the punishment.

Uncategorized, , , ,

© Copyright Innocence Project of Florida, Inc. This web site is supported in part by grants from The Florida Bar Foundation.