And those mistakes were often made by their own lawyers. William Van Poyck’s trial lawyer did no investigation before the trial, digging up nothing that would give the jury a reason to spare his client’s life. And the lawyer on his first appeal reportedly admitted to being a cocaine addict, had previously been disbarred, and never spoke to Van Poyck or answered any of his letters.
Then there’s the case of Clemente Aguirre. He’s the man who may well become Florida’s 25th exoneree — and his case shows how prone to error Florida’s death penalty system still is.
In 2006, Aguirre was accused of murdering two of his neighbors, 47-year-old Cheryl Williams and her mother. The women lived next door to him in a trailer park. The crime was bloody and brutal: Williams was stabbed 129 times. Aguirre was a prep cook from Honduras who was in the United States illegally. At first, when police questioned him about the murders, Aguirre said he knew nothing. Then he went back to the police, on his own, and told them he’d discovered the bodies late on the night of the killings, when he went to Williams’ trailer to ask if she had any beer. (Williams had been dating one of Aguirre’s roommates.) Aguirre led the police to clothing and shoes he’d been wearing that night, which had the victims’ blood on it. He explained that when he opened the door of the trailer, he found Williams’ body and turned it over to see if she had a pulse. He hadn’t reported the killings, Aguirre said, because he was afraid he’d be deported.
Aguirre’s trial lawyer did little investigation and he never asked for DNA testing. The jury voted 7 to 5 to sentence him to death. Interviewed by a state psychiatrist in 2011, Aguirre said, through a translator, “They had the wrong man then, and they have the wrong guy now.” He continued: “DNA. DNA. DNA. Si.”
Aguirre was right. When his lawyers on appeal finally had DNA testing done, it showed no matches for Aguirre’s blood at the crime scene — and eight fresh bloodstains that matched the DNA profile of Cheryl Williams’ daughter. At a hearing last month, Aguirre’s lawyers presented this new evidence, along with the testimony of a friend of the daughter, who says the daughter told her that “demons are in her head and caused her to kill her family.” A police video also shows the daughter saying, “My family died from me.” Aguirre is now waiting for a ruling from the judge who heard the new evidence.
In theory, the Timely Justice Act tries to improve the quality of representation for death penalty defendants by providing more funding for it. But if you read the bill, you find that only about $400,000 has been allocated to reopen one office for defense lawyers in the northern part of the state. And this office won’t handle trials or even the first appeal. They come in only at the last stage.
If you really wanted to fix Florida’s death penalty system, you wouldn’t speed it up in a fit of frustration. You’d do the opposite. “Really what we need to do is pause,” says Stephen K. Harper, a longtime death penalty defense lawyer and the supervising attorney in the death penalty clinic at Florida International University’s law school. “Let’s step back, let’s consider the death penalty, from beginning through the end, and only then would we be able to come up with decent recommendations as to how to change it.”
That’s just not what’s happening. Now that Scott has signed the Timely Justice Act, the governor’s own legal advisor says, there are 13 inmates on death row whose final state of review “will be done within the next year.”
A version of this story ran on “This American Life” in the June 14-16 episode “This Week.” Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids.