5, 255 days. More than 14 years. For nearly a decade and half, Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin remained behind steel bars—caged and condemned to die for brutal murders he did not commit. While they trapped his physical body, his mind remained free. Clemente never gave up proving his innocence, despite the government using its overwhelming power to stop the hidden truth from coming to light; to maintain their convenient, yet wrongful conviction.
I had the honor of representing him for the last nine of those years. I was in the courtroom in 2018, standing next to Clemente when the State finally dropped the charges against him, a full 6 years after DNA results came back excluding him and pointing to the real perpetrator. That day in court, Clemente asked to speak. Clemente, not even five feet tall, rose from his chair. In a soft, calm voice, he turned to the prosecutors, the people who had stolen from him the prime of his life, and said, “I do not have hate in my heart.” I will never forget the strength and resiliency I witnessed from this man.
In 2003, Clemente fled the increasing gang violence in his home country of Honduras. His older sisters already had already emigrated and, he too, wanted to join them in Florida. After a grueling journey, he arrived. Working three jobs, sending money back home to his impoverished mother, Clemente began to make new home. He was a pool shark and known for his wide smile, and friendly disposition. They nicknamed him “Shorty.” Life was hard for Clemente, but he made the most of it and worked hard. He became friendly with his next-door neighbors in the trailer park in which he lived. They’d have cookouts and drink together.
June 17, 2004. The day that changed everything. Clemente had been in the country a little over a year. He was young, a bit impetuous, and had not yet taken steps to secure residency in the US. That morning, he went to his next-door neighbors’ home, as he had done many times before. He had worked late the day before, followed by the bar for some rounds of pool. He was home now but wanted to continue drinking. His neighbors always had an open-door policy and generous with sharing beer.
As soon as he entered, he knew something was wrong, very wrong. He saw blood. He saw the body of one of his neighbors practically blocking the door. He walked further into the trailer. He saw the body of another one of the women living in the trailer. Both looked like they had been stabbed. He saw a knife laying on some boxes. Clemente knew two other people lived in the home. Were they still alive? Was the killer still there? Panicked and afraid, Clemente picked up the knife and moved through the home, getting blood on his shoes and making tracks. He checked both women for signs of life. Now, their blood was on his clothes. After finding no one else in the house, he left. He was in shock. He didn’t even realize he still had the knife in his hand, dropping it in the front in the yard. He didn’t know what to do.
Clemente was in the country illegally. If deported to Honduras, he would likely be killed. He had fled because he was under increasing pressure to join a gang. His best friend had been murdered in the street. The gang members told him he was next. Calling the police meant being deported and so he went home. He waited and worried.
Once the bodies were discovered police swarmed the area. Clemente eventually went to them. He told them what he knew. That he went there, that he was scared, that he touched the bodies and the knife and that he did not call the police. He thought telling the truth was the right thing to do. He offered his DNA, his blood, his hair, everything. He wanted to prove his innocence. Like many in the criminal justice system, Clemente’s cooperation caused the police to have tunnel vision. They had an easy suspect. Open and shut case, nothing more to look into. Like many who think they can explain their innocence to police, it did not work. It would be 14 more years before Clemente would breathe free air again.
Clemente’s lawyers did not believe him. They did no investigation, never asking for DNA testing. They never even bothered to call his mother in Honduras. He was convicted and condemned to death. His first couple years on death row were filled with tears and anguish. He saw other inmates being led off by guards to be executed. He did not speak English. He didn’t understand the system. He didn’t know that he had years of appeals before he was eligible for execution. Clemente thought those same guards would come to take him away like had seen many times before. But he did not give up.
Clemente taught himself English. He learned how to paint. Like he had done when he first arrived, he made the most of his circumstances. He wrote letters, thousands of them. He wrote to the Innocence Project, lawyers, politicians, even Oprah.
I first met Clemente in the summer of 2009 when my office was appointed to represent him. He was skeptical. Too many lawyers had already failed and ignored him. I was no different in his eyes. It took some time, but he soon learned that we were ready to fight for him. We joined forces with the Innocence Project, and ultimately won a motion for DNA testing. We tested over 100 bloodstains, and not a single drop belonged to Clemente. What we did find were 8 drops belonging to the actual killer – who was the daughter/granddaughter of the victims. We would later find out she told multiple people she had killed her family.
We asked the State to drop the charges in light of this new evidence. They said no. We presented all this new evidence to a judge in 2013, arguing that it was enough to overturn his conviction and grant him a new trial. After 2 weeks of evidence and testimony, we were hopeful. Three months later, she denied our motion. I had to call Clemente to tell him this news. He was dejected, frustrated. And yet, he stayed hopeful. He knew he had a team to fight for him. And fight we did. Three years later, in October of 2016, a unanimous Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction and granted him the new trial he deserved.
It would take two more years of fighting before that day in November of 2018 when the State finally dropped the charges, and Clemente was free. In every painting he did in prison, including the one that sits on my desk as I write this essay, he painted two birds flying. He said they represented the day that he would be free and be reunited with his mother. I was lucky enough to witness this beautiful reunion at the Orlando airport that next month – the first hug from a mother to her son in more than 15 years. And I’m reminded of his strength and perseverance every time I look at this painting. They are finally flying free.
Clemente and Maria on his day of freedom.