Serial rapist convicted of 1983 murder didn't kill woman, prosecutors say

DNA evidence, letter from killer prompts state to seek reversal from court

By Peter Burke - Managing Editor

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Broward County prosecutors are asking a judge to reverse the conviction and prison sentence of a man wrongly convicted of murdering a 20-year-old woman in 1983.

Regina Harrison was killed May 2, 1983. Her naked and strangled body was found in Hollywood.

Ronald Henry Stewart, who was suspected of numerous rapes that occurred in Broward County and Mississippi, was arrested June 8, 1983. He confessed and pleaded guilty to three rapes in Broward County. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges in six other rapes for which Stewart was suspected and questioned.

Later, Stewart agreed to plead no contest to killing Harrison.

READ: Transcript of Ronald Henry Stewart's change of plea hearing

Stewart was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He died in 2008.

In November, the Broward Sheriff's Office, Hollywood Police Department and Broward County State Attorney's Office revisited the crime "when new evidence came to light that raised questions and concerns about Stewart's conviction for the murder," according to a news release.

Jack Harold Jones was on death row in Arkansas for the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips, a 34-year-old woman who was killed at work. Her 11-year-old daughter was severely beaten and left for dead, but she survived and helped police identify her attacker.

Sometime in 2006 or 2007, Jones wrote a letter to his sister with instructions not to open it until a year after his execution.

READ: State's motion to vacate, set aside judgment and sentence and dismiss the indictment

"In the letter, Jones confessed to the 1983 murder of a young woman meeting the description of Regina Harrison," assistant state attorney Carolyn V. McCann wrote in the motion to vacate Stewart's conviction. "Jones gave several details in his letter, which lent it credibility. Jones instructed his sister to give the information to Detective John Curcio, which she did. That letter was shared with the Hollywood Police Department, which originally investigated the murder of Regina Harrison."

READ: Letter Jack Harold Jones wrote to his sister

In February, the Broward Sheriff's Office crime lab submitted the DNA collected from Harrison's body into the national DNA database.

"The DNA tests revealed that the DNA collected from the body of Regina Harrison in 1983 originated from Jack Harold Jones," McCann wrote.

Regina Harrison, 20, was killed May 2, 1983, in Hollywood. Ronald Henry Stewart later confessed to killing her and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Jones had previously been convicted of the 1991 murder of Lorraine Barrett, a 32-year-old tourist from Pennsylvania who was raped, beaten and strangled in her Fort Lauderdale hotel room. He was executed by the state of Arkansas in 2017.

"DNA testing was not available in 1983 when Regina Harrison was murdered and was not generally available for forensic use" when Stewart pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in 1985, McCann wrote.

"Ronald Henry Stewart would not have been charged with murder if DNA testing were available," she added. "Ronald Henry Stewart would not have been prosecuted if DNA testing were available. Ronald Henry Stewart was not criminally responsible for the murder of Regina Harrison."

Prosecutors said Jones once told Curcio, while he was investigating Barrett's murder, that he had killed someone else and promised to eventually identify the victim. Jones kept in touch with Curcio while on death row, even sending him a painting.

Jack Harold Jones was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of an Arkansas woman in 2017.

"We do not know why Jones chose to confess to the murders of Barrett and Phillips while he was alive but delayed the release of his confession to the Harrison murder until after his execution," the news release said. "Jones left South Florida shortly after the Harrison murder and returned to his native Ohio. He later returned to South Florida and murdered Barrett. Later still, he murdered Phillips in Arkansas."

Prosecutors and police said in a joint news release that they "regret the roles that our agencies played in Stewart's conviction for the murder of Regina Harrison."

"We also regret that the evidence and tips led to the wrong suspect, who pleaded no contest to the murder," they said. "Even though Stewart was sentenced to serve all of his prison terms for the murder and the eight rapes concurrently, or at the same time, we regret that he pleaded no contest to a murder he did not commit and that this diverted attention from the real killer."

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