The U.S. has seen a rise in exonerations in recent years. The National Registry of Exonerations (law.umich.edu) reports at least 139 exonerations in 2017, 166 in 2016 and 149 in 2015.
But wrongfully convicted Ronald Stewart did not live to see his record set straight: A court filing by Florida prosecutors to throw out his conviction in the 1983 rape and murder of 20-year-old West Palm Beach college student Regina Harrison came in March 2019. That was a long time after he’d died of cancer in a Mississippi prison in 2008 after serving nearly 25 years of a 50-year sentence for the crime.
“The Broward State Attorney’s Office and Hollywood Police Department regret the roles our agencies played in Stewart’s conviction,” the offices said in a statement. “Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected.”
In addition, Broward County prosecutors said he never should have been charged.
Stewart was convicted in 1985 in Florida after pleading no contest to Harrison’s strangulation death near her parents’ home in Hollywood, Florida, in order to avoid the possibility of execution. At the time, there was no DNA testing.
“The actual killer [Jack Harold Jones], whose guilt has since been confirmed by DNA testing, went on to murder at least two more women after Harrison,” the Broward State Attorney’s Office reports, before being executed in 2017 for an Arkansas murder.
Before his death, Jones gave his sister a letter confessing to the Harrison crime, a letter he instructed her to open one year after his death. The letter was given to detective John Curcio, who reopened the investigation and had DNA evidence tested.
“Ronald Stewart would not have been charged with murder if DNA testing had been available at the time,” the Broward State Attorney’s Office wrote.
Additionally, Stewart’s lawyer noted flaws in the case: fingerprints from the crime scene did not match his client’s, and there were faulty witnesses and jailhouse snitches.
At the time, Stewart denied any role in the murder but feared that he would be sentenced to death because he had earlier been convicted for a series of rapes.
“The case is one of a growing number of exonerations in which the threat of the death penalty has induced false confessions or caused innocent defendants to enter guilty or no-contest pleas to crimes they did not commit,” deathpenaltyinfo.org reports.
Sources: deathpenaltyinfo.org, browardpalmbeach.com, usatoday.com
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