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Murder charges dropped against exonerated death row inmate

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Prosecutors have dropped their case against a man who spent more than a decade on Florida's death row for the 2004 stabbing deaths of his neighbors, CBS affiliate WKMG reports. Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, then a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant from Honduras, found the bodies of Cheryl Williams and her mother, Carol Bareis, in their Altamonte Springs home, but told authorities he didn't call police for fear of being deported.

The victims had been stabbed multiple times. Aguirre-Jarquin reportedly told authorities he got the victims' blood on his clothing when he checked to see if they were breathing and picked up a knife near the bodies, fearful the killer was still in the area, but then panicked and threw it in nearby bushes. He was arrested shortly after the slayings, was convicted and received the death penalty in 2006, but has maintained his innocence, WKMG reports.

In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned Aguirre-Jarquin's conviction and death sentence based in part on new DNA testing of blood stains on crime scene evidence that cleared Aguirre-Jarquin and implicated someone else — Samantha Williams, the victims' daughter and granddaughter. The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal aid group that took on Aguirre-Jarquin's case in 2011, said Aguirre-Jarquin's court-appointed attorney at his original trial didn't request the DNA testing, calling the representation "woefully inadequate."

The Florida Supreme Court also heard evidence that Williams confessed the crime to several friends and acquaintances, according to the Innocence Project. Aguirre-Jarquin spent nearly 15 years behind bars, 10 of them on death row. 

"Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn't commit," Joshua Dubin, one of Aguirre-Jarquin's attorneys, said in a statement. "While we are overjoyed that his ordeal is finally over, the case of Clemente Aguirre should serve as a chilling cautionary tale about how dangerous it is when there is a rush to judgment in a capital case."

Despite the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, State Attorney Phil Archer announced he would re-try Aguirre-Jarquin and again seek the death penalty. But on Monday, amid jury selection in the second trial, Archer announced he would drop all charges. According to the Innocence Project, the decision came after new testimony emerged in pre-trial hearings that undermined Williams' alibi.

Williams has not been charged with any crimes. In a statement released to WKMG, Archer said, "While the State has serious concerns about the credibility of Mr. Aguirre-Jarquin's statement of facts regarding his participation in this incident, the State does not believe further incarceration of Mr. Aguirre-Jarquin is warranted or justified at this time. We appreciate the efforts of his attorneys in presenting this new evidence."

A spokesperson for the state attorney's office told WKMG prosecutors will be meeting with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office in coming weeks "to review the evidence and determine if there are any investigative avenues that can be pursued, or any further action to be taken in this case."

A photo released by the Innocence Project shows Aguirre-Jarquin in court, apparently overcome by emotion. "I have only forgiveness in my heart for those who did wrong to me," Aguirre-Jarquin said in a statement released by the Innocence Project.

Aguirre-Jarquin, now 38, walked out of a detention facility Monday afternoon, wiped away tears and hugged his legal team and supporters, The Orlando Sun-Sentinel reports. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reportedly placed an immigration hold on Aguirre-Jarquin on Friday. He now faces possible deportation.

His lawyers said they will pursue an asylum claim for him, though experts tell the paper it would be an uphill battle. "If there were ever a person that deserved a chance to become a United States citizen, it is Clemente Aguirre," Dubin told the paper.

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