Tuesday, May 8, 2007
(STATE ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, 18TH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT.)
The botched work by a Seminole sheriff's examiner includes a double-murder case.
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 8, 2007
SANFORD -- A state review has found two more botched identifications by a Seminole County sheriff's fingerprint examiner, one of them in a sensational double-murder case that sent a man to death row.
The news Monday makes four cases so far in which the fingerprint expert made matches that state analysts now say were inconclusive or wrong.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab is reworking hundreds more fingerprint identifications made by the sheriff's expert. Prosecutors are checking their records to see whether innocent people might have been sent to prison.
Donna Birks, an 11-year department veteran with nearly 25 years of fingerprint expertise, was suspended with pay April 4 after a co-worker complained that she had made a positive identification of a print that was impossible to read.
Birks is now the subject of an internal investigation. She could not be reached for comment.
The Sheriff's Office last week reported that FDLE had found two bad calls by Birks. On Monday, that number had climbed to four.
The double homicide is the most prominent, so far. But it's unclear whether the defendant will get a new trial.
The case was a prosecutor's dream: The suspect's bloody fingerprint was found on the blade of a knife used to murder two women. The evidence helped send Clemente Javier "Shorty" Aguirre to death row last year.
A sheriff's crime-scene analyst told jurors that Birks had identified Aguirre's fingerprint on the chef's knife found near the home of a wheelchair-bound woman and her adult daughter, both found slain.
Mother, daughter slain
Carol Bareis, 68, had been stabbed in the chest and back while still in her wheelchair, and her daughter, Cheryl A. Williams, 47, had been stabbed 129 times June 17, 2004, in their home near Altamonte Springs.
Aguirre, 26, a Honduran immigrant who worked at an Italian restaurant in Lake Mary, lived in a shed next door to the victims. The knife, which had been taken from the restaurant, was found on the ground in his yard.
Jurors convicted him of two counts of murder Feb. 28, 2006, and Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr. sentenced him to the death penalty.
Defense attorney Chris Quarles said Monday that he wants to put the new evidence -- the inconclusive print -- before Eaton and ask for a new trial.
Birks was, he said, "either an incompetent or dishonest . . . examiner."
From the witness stand, Aguirre tried to explain the physical evidence that state experts said tied him to the scene.
He walked into the victims' home after the women were already dead, he told jurors, and got their blood on his clothes because he touched them to see whether they were still alive.
He picked up the knife, which was near one of he bodies, he said."I know I grabbed it. I don't know why I took it," he said in Spanish.
Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Lemma said Monday that FDLE had reworked about 70 of Birks' cases. It will rework more than 200 others, he said, all of those in which Birks' print analysis was the primary reason for an arrest or arrest warrant.
FDLE also will rework any case yet to come to trial in which Birks made a print identification, he said.
There is no evidence, he said, that Birks intentionally misidentified suspects. Sheriff's investigators checking into the problem cases have not questioned her, he said.
The set of mistakes, he said, "obviously is a major concern to the Sheriff's Office." It is working "to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
No clear-cut fingerprint ID
In the Aguirre case and the two bad calls by Birks that were disclosed last week -- a car burglary and an unsolved 2006 homicide in Altamonte Springs -- Birks positively identified prints that FDLE experts later said weren't clear or detailed enough for a clear-cut ID, said Lemma and Chris White, chief prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office in Seminole.
In the fourth case, FDLE concluded that Birks had identified the wrong person as a match, both men said. That burglary case against a juvenile was dropped three years ago, long before the fingerprint problem was discovered, White said.
Rene Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-324-7294.