DNA testing exonerates dead man in Florida woman's murder 36 years later

A confession letter from the actual killer prompted a re-investigation.

ByJ. Gabriel Ware
March 22, 2019, 2:58 AM

Prosecutors in Florida are asking for a dead man’s murder conviction to be vacated after DNA testing showed he was wrongly convicted.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office filed a motion to exonerate Ronald Stewart for the murder of Regina Harrison, it said in a statement released on Thursday. Harrison was killed on May 2, 1983, just two days after her 20th birthday. Stewart, who had previously been sentenced to three concurrent 50-year prison terms for other crimes, including rape and burglary, pled no contest to the murder and was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison, according to court records.

Stewart died while incarcerated on Sept. 11, 2008.

Ten years later, the reinvestigation into Harrison's murder began when a written confession was handed over to law enforcement by the sister of Jack Harold Jones, a convicted murderer and rapist who was executed a year earlier by the state of Arkansas for the 1995 killing of Mary Phillips, 34.

Jones' sister said he had instructed her not to open the letter, which was written in 2006 or 2007, until one year after his execution.

PHOTO: Jack Harold Jones and Ronald Henry Stewart in undated photos.
Jack Harold Jones and Ronald Henry Stewart in undated photos.
Arkansas Department of Corrections/Florida Department of Corrections

In the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by ABC News, Jones appears to confess to the murder of a young woman who meets the description of Harrison in detail.

“I met her riding bikes,” the letter said. “We went to the beach, rode around down there, and came back up Sheridan and into the park. That’s where it happened.”

The letter prompted the Broward Sheriff’s Office to run the DNA collected from Harrison’s body in the national DNA database. The test revealed the DNA collected from Harrison’s body originated not from Stewart but from Jones, according to the motion.

DNA testing, which was not available in 1983 when Harrison was murdered, has exonerated more than 350 innocent people in the United States, according to the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA testing to help exonerate wrongly convicted people.

“Ronald Stewart would not have been charged with murder if DNA testing had been available at the time and he would not have been prosecuted for the murder if DNA testing had been available at the time,” the Broward State Attorney’s Office statement reads.

PHOTO: A stock photo depicts DNA testing in a petri dish.

For Harrison’s family, though, the news of his wrongful conviction came too late and it has forced them to relive the pain of their lost loved one.

“In a practical sense, this doesn’t affect anybody that’s alive today. We got two bad guys and they’re both dead,” brother Richard Harrison, 58, told ABC News. “Though Stewart didn’t murder my sister, that didn’t make him any less evil, and that doesn’t make Jones any less dead.”

But Richard Harrison, who is an attorney in Florida, also said that he supports the state’s attorney’s effort to correct the record because it helps build trust with the community. He said that he has explained the news to his parents, both of whom are approaching 90 and have health issues.