Thirty Six Year Old Murder Case Reversed on New DNA Evidence and Confession

Michael B. Cohen, Esq is a Criminal Defense Attorney specializing in federal crimes as well as the defense of Homicides and all related cases. His offices are located in New York City as well as retaining two offices in South Florida

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Ronald Henry Stewart is a rapist. Of that there’s no doubt as he was previously convicted for multiple charges of rape. However, Ronald Henry Stewart is not a murderer. In the summer of 1983 after being charged with the rape/murder of 20-year-old Regina Harrison Stewart he pleaded no contest. A jury subsequently convicted him of all counts of these crimes. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of the young West Palm Beach college student.

At trial Stewart’s attorney pointed out a great deal of weaknesses in the case against his client including the use of jailhouse informers who had much to gain by testifying against Stewart, a potentially defective eyewitnesses, and no fingerprint evidence gathered at the scene or other areas of police investigation that matched his client’s at all.

But in spite of the flaws in the case against him, Stewart chose to not fight the allegations vigorously, knowing at the time his very life would be on the line for a verdict of guilty. By approaching the case in this manner, assurances were negotiated that the charge would be second-degree murder and the death penalty would be taken off the table. In a statement by his attorney after the judge handed down the sentence, he commented that “Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea”.

Stewart clearly didn’t want to gamble with his life based on based on the text of the transcript from his sentencing hearing.

After Stewart’s immediate incarceration which began after sentencing that day in 1983, his attorney never once filed court petitions arguing his client’s innocence or attempted to appeal his sentence.

The victim who just turned twenty years old was a student at Palm Beach Atlantic Junior College. She went missing in May, 1983. Her last known whereabouts was on the Hollywood Boardwalk biking with a male companion. Her nude and strangled body was found by friends who were desperately searching for her in West Lake Park the day after she was last sighted on the other side of the Intercostal Waterway a few miles from where she was last seen alive. A rape kit showed she was sexually assaulted and the cause of death was cited as strangulation.

The friend of Harrison, who last saw her on the Boardwalk late that spring day in 1983, was able to produce a composite sketch for the Hollywood Police Department to analyze, describing the man who had been cycling with her. A separate witness later picked Stewart out of a photo array. When questioned by investigators Stewart flatly denied any role in the murder, but inmates who spent time with him while incarcerated contacted investigators telling them that Stewart had confessed to the rape and murder. These possibly unreliable witnesses however provided details of the crime lined up with detective’s theory.

Taking everything into consideration, it’s simple to figure out why Stewart pleaded as he did to the second-degree murder of Harrison. His agreement with the prosecution stipulated he could serve the 50-year murder sentence concurrently with his time for the previous multiple rape convictions. It didn’t add any additional time to his sentence and basically kept him shielded from the possibility of execution.

So that’s it. Case closed; or was it?

Jack Harold Jones was convicted for the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips and was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution he admitted and pleaded guilty to the 1991 rape and murder of Lorraine Barrett. DNA evidence belonging to Jones was found at the scene of Barrett’s death. In both cases, the cause of death was strangulation.

He was scheduled to be executed on November 14, 2015 in Arkansas. His execution was stayed due to legal challenges regarding the execution drugs. He was finally executed on April 24, 2017, eleven years after his sentence was handed down. He had exhausted every appeal including appealing and being rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Before his execution, while waiting on death row, Jones wrote a four-page letter that was given to his sister with clear instructions that the letter not be opened until one year passed after his pending execution. She honored her brother’s request.

After reading his missive in November of last year she immediately sent it to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Within the ramblings of his last written communication about the heinous crimes he committed before he was caught and found guilty for the murder of Mary Phillips he wrote that he needed to give a true account of what happened to Regina Harrison. He went on to write that one evening while sleeping in his cell he was visited by Harrison’s spirit and needed her family to know the truth about how their daughter lost her life.

He went on to carve out an account of Harrison, now long dead; haunting him each night as he tried to sleep. He spoke of direct communication with her that finally caused him to decide to write this final letter which would in finality exonerate Ronald Henry Stewart; at least of that particular crime. Describing his visions in detail he wrote “She haunted me for three years, and we made peace… She moved on. She was really mad at first, missed her parents. But she learned things over there that helped her, and she got to understand who I was and why I’d done such a thing. She forgave me. I never forgave myself.”

According to Broward County prosecutors, the DNA testing methods which were not available in the 1980’s confirmed Jones‘s “at first” seemingly incoherent account but in its final determination proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones was in fact the actual killer.

When interviewed by the press, Broward County prosecutors say Stewart should never have been charged with Harrison’s death. In a press release disseminated last month (this past February, 2019), prosecutors pronounced they were pursuing overturning Stewart’s conviction, going on to state that they had found the perpetrator who actually murdered Ms. Harrison.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office went on to write if DNA testing was available at the time of the crime, “Stewart would not have been charged with murder… Ronald Stewart was not responsible for the murder of Regina Harrison.”

The only happy ending in these connected cases is the finality of closure for the friends and family of Regina Harrison. None of the men implicated and found guilty of these crimes are no longer of this world, and maybe that’s just as it should be.

Although Stewart was exonerated he died of cancer at the age of 48 in 2008 after serving half of his sentence. Jones, the man linked to Harrison through DNA evidence, is also dead and gone. His execution was carried out by the State of Arkansas in 2017 for the commission of the other murders.