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Christopher Clugston

Other Florida Cases with Perjury or False Accusations
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In the early morning hours of October 25, 1981, 19-year-old Bryce Waldman, a bouncer for Agora Ballroom, a nightclub in Hallandale, Florida, was leaving work when he 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 21-year-old Christopher Clugston, an acquaintance of theirs.

Ziegenhagen told police that he and Menut had been at the club with friends earlier that night, but some of them had been asked to leave because they were drunk. Ziegenhagen said that when one of the women was slightly injured while a bouncer led her out of the bar, Menut threatened to kill the bouncer.

Ziegenhagen said that after they left, Menut and Clugston returned to the club, and later confessed to killing someone. Ziegenhagen was offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Clugston and Menut.

Menut and his wife told police that Clugston was the shooter. Menut said that he drove back to the club, and when they approached, Clugston unexpectedly opened fire. No physical evidence connected Clugston to the crime.

In January 1983, a Broward County Circuit Court jury convicted Menut of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In February, Clugston went to trial. A mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. A second trial, in June 1983, also ended in a mistrial when that jury deadlocked, voting 7 to 5 in favor of conviction.

On October 31, 1983, Clugston went to trial a third time. Prosecutors introduced evidence that immediately after the shooting, Clugston fled to Tennessee, where he ultimately was arrested in December 1981.

Cheryle Lewis, a cocktail waitress who served Menut, Ziegenhagen, and their friends, testified that she was standing outside Agora with a group of employees getting off work. She identified Menut as the driver of the car. Lewis admitted that she initially told police that Ziegenhagen was the gunman, and that she first gave a description from which a composite drawing was made that resembled Ziegenhagen.

Lewis also admitted that she failed to pick Clugston out of a lineup and said she had never seen him before. Nonetheless, she testified that Ziegenhagen was not the passenger who did the shooting.

The prosecution’s case relied primarily on the testimony of Ziegenhagen, who told the jury that Menut and Clugston admitted the shooting. Ziegenhagen testified that Clugston fired the fatal shot from a rifle he owned and that Menut later threw it into the ocean. The gun was never recovered.

A forensic analyst testified that ballistic tests on the bullet showed it could have been fired from the type of rifle that Clugston owned.

On November 7, 1983, the jury convicted Clugston of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1986, Menut signed a sworn affidavit stating that Clugston was not the shooter and sent it to Clugston’s attorney. Menut claimed to have fingered Clugston in order to protect Ziegenhagen, the real shooter. He said that he did so at the urging of his attorney, Jeff Smith, who also represented Ziegenhagen in the case.

Clugston sought to vacate his conviction based on the recantation, but his petition for a new trial was denied.

In 1990, Menut’s wife also recanted her testimony against Clugston. She said that Ziegenhagen returned to the club with her husband. Ziegenhagen was not available for questioning—he had died in 1986.

Clugston sought to vacate his conviction based on this new information, but he lost again.

In April 1993, news about the case was aired on television. Mary Kathleen Paolillo, who watched the program, was at the Agora when the shooting occurred because her husband played in the band that was entertaining there that night.

Paolillo contacted Clugston’s attorney. She reported that just before the shooting, she and a friend were returning from a parking lot across an alley from the Agora when a brown station wagon, driving erratically, almost ran them over.

The passenger stuck his head out the window when the car was about six feet from her. Paolillo said she looked at him face to face for about ten seconds. She said she took particular notice of his face and hair because of her training as a hairdresser. The station wagon then drove off.

Moments later, Paolillo entered the Agora from a back door and was told that there had been a shooting in front involving a brown station wagon. Paolillo realized that she had seen the shooter moments before the shooting. When she asked the manager whether she should tell the police what she had seen, the manager said there were enough witnesses out front who had seen the actual shooting and she was not allowed to go out front because the police had cordoned off the area.

Paolillo said she did not tell anyone else at the Agora what she had seen and was never questioned by the police, the state attorney’s office, or any private attorney. However, when she saw the photographs of Clugston and Ziegenhagen on television, she recognized Ziegenhagen as the passenger in the station wagon.

By that time, Clugston’s attorney had applied for clemency from Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. At Chiles’s request, Paolillo and Clugston took polygraph examinations. After the examiner concluded they were truthful—Clugston in his denial of involvement and Paolillo in her identification of Ziegenhagen—Gov. Chiles commuted Clugston’s sentence in July 1994, and he was released.

After his release, Clugston continued to pursue a new trial. On August 9, 2000, the Florida Court of Appeals overturned Clugston’s conviction and granted him a new trial.

On January 11, 2001, the Broward County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.

While in prison, Clugston was diagnosed with HIV after he was gang-raped by other prisoners. He died in 2015, 21 years after his release.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/29/2018
State:Florida
County:Broward
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1981
Convicted:1983
Exonerated:2001
Sentence:Life
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No