At his sentencing for the 1983 murder of a West Palm Beach college student, Ronald Henry Stewart said he was pleading no contest because it was in his best interest. Although his attorney pointed out a slew of flaws in the case — potentially faulty eyewitnesses, the use of jailhouse snitches, and fingerprint evidence that didn't match Stewart's prints — Stewart had previously been convicted of multiple rapes, and he feared being executed if a jury convicted him of killing 20-year-old Regina Harrison.
"Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea," his lawyer told the court at sentencing.
That day, Stewart was sentenced to 50 years in prison for Harrison's murder. He never appealed his plea or filed court petitions arguing he was innocent of the crime. But now, after a follow-up investigation using DNA evidence, Broward County prosecutors say Stewart should never have been charged with Harrison's death. In a news release Thursday, the prosecutors announced they were seeking to overturn Stewart's conviction, saying they had found the man who actually murdered Harrison — serial killer Jack Harold Jones.
"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. "Ronald Stewart was not responsible for the murder of Regina Harrison."
Unfortunately for Stewart, the news of exoneration comes too late: While incarcerated in 2008, he died of cancer at the age of 48. Jones, the man linked to Harrison through DNA evidence, is also dead. He was executed by the State of Arkansas in 2017 for committing another murder.
Harrison, a student at Palm Beach Atlantic Junior College, went missing May 2, 1983, shortly after her 20th birthday while on a bike ride. She was last seen on the Hollywood Broadwalk in the company of a male cyclist. Her body was found the next day in West Lake Park. The evidence showed she'd been sexually assaulted and strangled.
Hollywood Police produced a composite sketch after one of Harrison's friends gave a description of a male who had been cycling with her. A witness later picked Stewart out of a photo lineup. He denied any role in Harrison's murder, but inmates contacted investigators and said Stewart had confessed to killing the college student and even provided details of the crime.
At the time, Stewart was already serving three 50-year sentences for three rapes in Broward County. He'd been arrested in 1983 after breaking into a Fort Lauderdale home. While in jail, Stewart confessed to nine rapes in Broward, detectives say. He eventually pleaded guilty to three of them, with an agreement that he would face no charges in the other six cases. (In 1984, Stewart was also sentenced to multiple 50-year prison terms in Mississippi for five sexual batteries there in the early '80s.)
Looking back, it's easy to guess why Stewart pleaded no contest to the second-degree murder of Harrison. His agreement with prosecutors stipulated he could serve the 50-year murder sentence concurrently with his time for the previous rape convictions. That meant he basically had nothing to lose by pleading to Harrison's killing; the only practical difference for Stewart would have been the extra murder charge on his rap sheet.
Harrison's murder seemed like a closed case until November 2018, when lead detective John Curcio received a written confession from another suspect. A death row inmate from Arkansas, Jack Jones, had provided the letter to his sister, with instructions not to open it until a year after his death. He was executed in August 2017 in connection with another murder.
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In the confession letter, Jones wrote he wanted Harrison's family to know what really happened. "So, you just let them know that I am deeply sorry, that I couldn’t rest easy until they knew the truth," he wrote to his sister. "Let them know that in the end I became a better person, and I did the best I could to be as much as I could for others, out of respect for the ones I’ve harmed."
After receiving the letter, Curcio began a new investigation, which prompted a new round of DNA testing. The results, which came back in February, showed Jones had raped and killed Harrison, according to the State Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors say it's important to clear Stewart's name posthumously. "Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected at this time to reflect the results of the new information and evidence uncovered since November 2018," their memo says. "The Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Hollywood Police Department regret the roles that our agencies played in Stewart’s conviction for the murder of Regina Harrison."
Police say they are now investigating whether Jones, who police say killed at least three women, had any other victims.