Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Verdict stands after botched analysis, judge says

Rene Stutzman

Sentinel Staff Writer

October 16, 2007


A judge ruled Monday that death-row inmate Clemente Javier "Shorty" Aguirre does not deserve a new trial, even though a fingerprint expert botched her analysis and falsely told jurors his print was on the murder weapon.

Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr concluded that the jury would have convicted Aguirre and recommended the death penalty even if it had never heard the fingerprint evidence.

Aguirre, 27, was convicted by a Seminole County jury last year of murdering two neighbors -- a wheelchair-bound woman and her adult daughter.

Carol Bareis, 68, and her daughter, Cheryl A. Williams, 47, were found slain in their home near Altamonte Springs in June 2004.

At the trial, Seminole County fingerprint expert Donna Birks told jurors that a palm print found on the murder weapon, a chef's knife discovered in Aguirre's yard, belonged to Aguirre.

But that turned out to be false. Authorities reviewed more than 300 Sheriff's Office fingerprint cases after a co-worker in March complained about Birks. They found 10 bad calls by Sheriff's Office print experts, eight of those by Birks.

She resigned in June a few hours after being told she was about to be fired.

That was the same day Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger announced a major shakeup in the fingerprint lab.

Four of his fingerprint experts either made bad identifications or verified bad calls by a colleague.

The Aguirre case was the highest-profile misidentification.

Three weeks ago, Aguirre returned to the Seminole Criminal Justice Center to ask Eaton for a new trial.

Christina Barber, a print expert with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, testified that she looked at the knife from Aguirre's yard in May, several months after he had been sent to death row.

The print on it, she said, had so little detail, it couldn't be tied to anyone. Seven other FDLE print experts looked at it about the same time, she said, and each agreed with her.

On Monday, the judge released a 13-page order saying none of that mattered. The state's DNA and blood evidence linked only one credible suspect to the scene -- Aguirre -- the judge wrote.

He also pointed out that Aguirre testified that he had touched the knife. He told jurors he went into the victims' home after they already were dead, saw the knife, picked it up and carried it outside, the judge wrote.

Rene Stutzman can be reached at rstutzman@orlandosentinel.com or 407-324-7294.

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