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1985 murder conviction warrants a second look

Look at the case that put Paul Hildwin on death row and you'll see a lot of evidence that suggests he killed a 42-year-old woman named Vronzettie Cox.

She picked him up while he was hitchhiking in September of 1985. Four days later, Cox's car was found abandoned in northwest Hernando County with her nude body in the trunk.

Hildwin forged one of Cox's checks, and a teller from the bank where he cashed it testified she saw Hildwin driving a car that looked like Cox's. Detectives also found her ring and radio in Hildwin's house, not far from where the car was discovered.

About the only evidence that did more than suggest guilt was the saliva and semen stains on a washcloth and panties found in a laundry bag in the car.

To avoid as many season-inappropriate details as possible, I'll just say that the best science of the day showed that Hildwin was the likely source of these stains and that another potential suspect — Cox's boyfriend, William Haverty — definitely was not.

But it turns out that the best science of the day wasn't very good at all.

DNA testing determined in 2003 that the fluids on the items in the laundry bag did not belong to Hildwin. The lawyers fighting his sentence have argued ever since — with good reason, it seems — that the items should be tested to find out to whom the DNA did belong.

In November, they finally got their answer: Haverty.

An attorney general's lawyer fighting Hildwin's latest appeal has already told the Florida Supreme Court this doesn't matter. Haverty lived with Cox, after all. It would be surprising if his DNA was not on her laundry.

But consider that Hildwin told detectives he had seen Haverty and Cox argue, that Haverty had grabbed her by the neck and that, afterward, he had wiped his face with a white washcloth.

Also consider this other evidence Hildwin's lawyers have submitted to the Supreme Court as part of their latest request that he be granted a new trial:

Cox's nephew said she sat in a bar and complained about Haverty on the evening after she supposedly was killed.

When Haverty was first interviewed, he seemed nervous, his answers sounded rushed and rehearsed, and he "appeared to show no remorse or concern (for Cox) whatsoever," a detective's report said.

Investigators also found a note, apparently from Haverty, telling Cox that if she wasn't happy living with him, she could "f--- off and die."

The jury in the first trial never heard any of this, his current lawyers say.

One more thing. In 2006 — with judges operating under the assumption that scientific evidence had eliminated Haverty as a suspect —the Supreme Court denied Hildwin's previous request for a new trial by only a 4-3 vote.

Yes, he may have killed Cox. But that's not enough to keep Hildwin, 51, on death row, where he has lived out half his life.

The question is whether a jury would still find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I'd say probably not. As a matter of fact, if the court gives prosecutors the option to try this case again, I'll bet they pass.

Certainly, it's understandable that we generally doubt claims of innocence from death row inmates, especially ones such as Hildwin, With a previous rape conviction, he's no saint.

But if we're going to judge people by their past deeds, we should also remember Haverty is serving a 20-year prison sentence for multiple counts of sexually molesting children and is due to be released in a little more than three years. He's no saint, either.

1985 murder conviction warrants a second look 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 6:49pm]
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