In October 1981, a bouncer for a club in Broward, Florida was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. Police questioned and eventually arrested Jesse Ziegenhagen and Ted Menut, both of whom had been at the club that night, as well as Christopher Clugston, an acquaintance of theirs. Ziegenhagen told police that he had been at the club with friends earlier that night, but some of them had been asked to leave because they were drunk. When one of the women was hurt while being led out of a bar by a bouncer, Menut threatened to kill him. Ziegenhagen said that Menut and Clugston returned to the club, and later confessed to killing someone. Ziegenhagen was offered immunity for any involvement in exchange for his testimony against Clugston. Menut and his wife also implicated Clugston as the shooter, claiming that when Menut returned to the club, Clugston unexpectedly opened fire. No physical evidence connected Clugston to the crime. The juries in Clugston’s first two trials deadlocked, but in his third trial in November 1983, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. After a woman identified Menut as the driver, he was convicted of first-degree murder in a separate trial and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1986, Menut signed an affidavit stating that Clugston was not the shooter and sent it to Clugston’s attorney. He claimed to have fingered Clugston in order to protect Ziegenhagen, the real shooter, at the urging of his attorney, Jeff Smith, who also represented Ziegenhagen in the case. In 1990, Menut’s wife also recanted her testimony against Clugston, now saying that it was Ziegenhagen who had returned to the club with her husband. Ziegenhagen had died in 1986, and thus could not be questioned again. Clugston appealed based on this new information, but lost, leaving clemency as his only likely remedy.
While Clugston’s attorney was applying to the governor for clemency, stories about the case ran in the South Florida Sun Sentinel and on NBC news. A woman who was at the club on the night of the shooting saw the television broadcast and contacted Clugston’s attorney; she identified Ziegenhagen as the shooter. Though she had previously told the manager of the club that she had seen the shooter, he said that the police had lots of witnesses and did not need to speak to her. At the governor’s request, the woman and Clugston took lie detector tests. After they both passed, the governor commuted Clugston’s sentence in July 1994, and he was released. While in prison, Clugston had contracted HIV as a result of a gang rape.
After his release, Clugston continued to pursue a new trial in order to clear his name, even though a conviction might return him to prison. In August 2000, the Florida Court of Appeals overturned Clugston’s conviction and granted him a new trial. In January 2001, before retrial, the prosecution dropped all charges.
- Stephanie Denzel