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Freed by Supreme Court, Pasco man walks off death row

More than two years after a Pasco County judge sentenced him to death row, Derral W. Hodgkins walked out of prison Monday under fewer restrictions than if he had never been convicted of murder.

Hodgkins, 56, is the beneficiary of a Florida Supreme Court decision in June that overturned his conviction for first-degree murder, finding that a jury had insufficient evidence to hold him responsible for the 2006 stabbing death of his former girlfriend. He will not have a new trial — he can't be prosecuted again for the same crime — nor will he spend a day on probation.

To prosecutors' chagrin, Hodgkins is a free man.

"It's very troubling," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

"I read the court's decision when it first came out, I read it again today, and intellectually, I have a hard time grasping what they're saying. Here, a fella gives multiple stories trying to match whatever the cops tell him the evidence is, obviously telling many lies along the way, and somehow that is considered reasonable and credible evidence."

When Hodgkins returns to Pasco, he will live under relatively few constraints.

Convicted in 1988 of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old girl in Hillsborough County, he spent 17 years in prison before his release on lifetime probation. In 2013, when he was placed on death row, a judge terminated that probation and sentenced him to prison time, assuming probation made little sense for a man sentenced to death.

He also will benefit from timing. Although he was convicted of a violent sexual assault on a minor, Hodgkins is classified as a sexual offender, not a predator. His offense predates the creation of the predator category, which comes with a higher degree of scrutiny.

As a sex offender, Hodgkins will have to register with county law enforcement at least twice a year. And though he will be barred from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, day care centers or public parks, his neighbors will not be automatically notified when he moves onto their block, as they would for a predator.

"He's basically rejoining society," said attorney Bjorn Brunvand, who was assigned to defend Hodgkins in his 2011 murder trial. "I think the Supreme Court got it right. The evidence simply was insufficient."

Even in Florida, the state with the highest number of death row exonerations in the country, experts said Hodgkins' case is unusual.

"Typically, in most death row exonerations, a conviction is overturned and a new trial is ordered," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Here, the court said based on the evidence presented, he should have been acquitted."

In January 2011, Hodgkins' first trial ended in a mistrial when a state witness — a cell mate of Hodgkins' who testified that he had overheard him confess to the murder — let it slip that Hodgkins had been previously convicted of a crime. Prosecutors went to trial again without the jailhouse informant, confident that the presence of Hodgkin's DNA under the victim's fingernails would be sufficient to convince a jury of his guilt.

In addition to the DNA evidence, prosecutors said Hodgkins changed his story repeatedly. When Teresa Lodge, a 46-year-old Land O'Lakes cook, was found dead in her apartment, Hodgkins told investigators he hadn't seen her since 2004. Later, presented with the DNA evidence, he said he had been in Lodge's apartment three days before she died, when they had sex. That, he said, is how his skin got under her nails.

But the court's decision concluded the state had proved only that Hodgkins had contact with Lodge, not that he killed her. Prosecutors had said there were bloody skin cells under Lodge's nails, but a majority of the justices found the evidence didn't support that. Of the 18 fingerprints found in Lodge's apartment, none belonged to Hodgkins.

Jurors convicted Hodgkins of first-degree murder and recommended to send him to death row with a 7-5 vote.

"Everybody has been saying from the beginning, nobody could believe it, not the way it happened, not Teresa," said Hodgkins' oldest son, Wayne Hodgkins, who drove to the Union Correctional Institution on Monday to pick up his father. "He loved that girl."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Freed by Supreme Court, Pasco man walks off death row 10/12/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2015 8:50pm]
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