“This story completely defies common sense.”
Seminole Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler, who ruled late last month that evidence presented by lawyers for Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin was simply not enough to merit a new trial for Florida death row inmate:
State prosecutors maintain that he sneaked into the mobile home at 121 Vagabond Way in Altamonte Springs just before 6 a.m. on June 18, 2004. Inside, he stabbed Bareis twice and Williams 129 times with a kitchen knife. He then ran back to his home.
When deputies questioned him, Aguirre-Jarquin admitted that he had visited the home early that morning to ask if they had beer. He came across Williams’ body and tried to revive her, he said. After he realized she was dead, he stepped further inside and found Bareis. He spotted the knife and picked it up, fearing the killer might still be there, he said. He ran home and tossed the knife in the grass. He claimed he didn’t report the crime because he was in the U.S. illegally and feared deportation to his native Honduras.
"This story completely defies common sense," Recksiedler wrote in her ruling.
In 2010, lawyers for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, secured DNA testing for 84 pieces of crime scene evidence that had not been tested previously. None of the items contained Aguirre-Jarquin’s DNA.
Among the tested items were eight small blood droplets, which an expert said were fresh. When tested, they matched the DNA of Cheryl Williams’ daughter, Samantha.
Further investigation revealed Samantha Williams had a history of psychiatric problems and trouble with the law. She had also made numerous statements in the years since her mother’s death that lawyers said suggested she was somehow responsible.
"Do you understand that they died for me," she wailed during a 2007 arrest. In another incident, she was reported to have said that "demons" were in her head and made her kill her family.
Recksiedler declared that DNA and other newly discovered forensic evidence was not convincing enough to discount the official theory of how the crime happened. The claim of a defense expert, who testified that the new DNA evidence pointed to Samantha Williams as the killer, was highly unlikely, the judge wrote.
So I’m sorry, what aspect of this story defies common sense?
Andrew Cohen waxes philosophical about the question every criminal defense attorney has to answer at least once:
It surely is a sign of some great cosmic conspiracy that Jacques Verges, one of the most famous defense attorneys of all time, a man who unapologetically defended the Khmer Rouge, Carlos the Jackal, and countless other international villains and rogues, woulddiethe very same week that Abbe Smith and Monroe H. Freedman would publish a collection of poignant essays from notable defense attorneys titled “How Can You Represent Those People?”
“The Question,” as the editors title it, is probably asked in sorrow, anger, and curiosity, a thousand times a day. “What is really being asked is ‘How can you represent people you know to be guilty?’” write Smith and Freedman. “Not guilty shoplifters, marijuana possessors, drunk drivers, or political protesters—these could be us, our children, our parents. Not the wrongly accused or convicted either—even the harshest critics understand defending the innocent. The Question refers instead to the representation of guilty criminals who have committed acts of violence or depravity.”
“There are no right answers” to the Question, the editors hasten to add; it all depends upon the lawyer. As someone who has never been a criminal defense attorney, here’s how I would answer: Anyone—everyone— is entitled to a defense, and to a lawyer, because our rule of law is based upon the premise that the State must prove its case against a person beyond a reasonable doubt and because the history of the world, and of America, teaches us that the State is quite often wrong, or worse, when it accuses someone of crime. The principle of that—like the presumption of innocence or the right to confront a witness against you—is more important than is the result of any single case.
The motto of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is “Liberty’s Last Champion.” When the government tars your reputation with scandalous charges, the media speculates about your guilt, the public has already judged you guilty, and your family and friends have forsaken you, a defense attorney will still be there to protect your best interests.
It is right and good that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel in criminal cases, however imperfectly enforced these days. When nobody else cares what happens to you, a defense attorney will be a living paraphrase of Buckley’s infamous alarum, standing between you and the government, screaming “stop!” at the machine-work of criminal justice, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
The alternative to guaranteeing a lawyer to everyone accused of a crime is nothing short of tyranny over plain men & women by a class of civil servants with superior knowledge of the law. It is hardly advantageous to have a Sovereign who can arbitrarily decide who deserves the right to a lawyer and who doesn’t. Experience shows that when you make exceptions for the worst of us, those exceptions inevitably creep to include the rest of us as well.
“So we have a Supreme Court ruling that says that the mentally retarded cannot be executed. And we have a man whom all experts now agree is mentally retarded beyond a reasonable doubt. And we have the mental health community siding with the defendant. And yet we have an execution scheduled for July 15th. And yet we have state officials (and lower court judges) arguing that the mentally retarded man who is scheduled to be executed cannot find succor in Atkins because of procedural rules that limit his ability to raise new claims (like the facts that his doctors now say they were wrong). This is what I mean when I write that the case shows how hollow the Constitution can be when the justices compromise over core protections.”
“So, you know, it’s either timely ‘justice’ or it’s grave injustice. But either way, it’s quick. And apparently Florida legislators just like their justice or injustice to happen quickly. … If you have to kill a few innocent people in order to get revenge as fast as possible against several dozen guilty people, well, that’s a good deal, right? … I’ll just go ahead and answer my own question: No, Florida, it’s not.”
“As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects. … In one Texas case, Benjamin Herbert Boyle was executed in 1997, more than a year after the Justice Department began its review. Boyle would not have been eligible for the death penalty without the FBI’s flawed work, according to a prosecutor’s memo.”