Monday, June 25, 2018
News Roundup

Romano: State failed to seek all the truth in murder case

We trust the state to take bad guys off the street.

Track them down, send them to trial and lock 'em up.

In this, there can be no leeway. No pity, no uncertainty, no failure. Victory is the clanging sound of a cell door.

But at what point does justice outweigh victory?

And when is the truth more important than a conviction?

You might have heard last week about the case of Paul Hildwin, a Hernando County man who has spent 28 years on death row for a murder he insists he did not commit.

The state Supreme Court has overturned Hildwin's conviction, and officials are now debating whether to prepare for a new trial or set him free.

Here's one suggestion:

Cut him loose.

And apologize profusely.

The conviction that seemed so rock solid in 1986 has since eroded tremendously. Defense witnesses were never heard from. Evidence of another suspect was ignored. Scientific testimony was bogus.

For more than 20 years, the state has been aware of inconsistencies, yet it has fought vociferously against the introduction of new evidence.

"At some point, you would have hoped they would step back and say, 'Why not look at this objectively? Why not consider what this new evidence means?' " said Hildwin's attorney Martin McClain. "They never did.''

Let me be clear on this:

Hildwin is no saint. In fact, his behavior was reprehensible and stupid and has a lot to do with why he was convicted. It's also important to point out that the new evidence does not prove his innocence, but it does cast doubt on his guilt.

The evidence of his guilt?

Hildwin, a convicted rapist, cashed a check and stole a ring from Vronzettie Cox, who picked him up while hitchhiking. She was found murdered days later.

At trial, an FBI analyst suggested there was a strong possibility Hildwin's semen was on her underpants. Hildwin also told conflicting stories.

Evidence for exoneration?

The woman's nephew told police he talked to her at a bar on a Monday about 12 hours after Hildwin supposedly killed her. Another witness said she saw the victim at a bar the next afternoon. This should have blown apart the state's timeline, but the original defense attorney was unaware of these witnesses.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend told police that he never saw her again after she left their home to do laundry, yet days went by and he never reported her missing. When her sister finally inquired about her, the boyfriend made suspicious-sounding statements, according to police reports. A note he had written telling the victim to "f--- off and die" was also discovered. None of this was revealed at the trial.

Finally, new DNA testing proved that the semen on the woman's underpants did not belong to Hildwin. Instead, it belonged to the boyfriend, who has since been sentenced to 20 years for sexually abusing a child.

This does not mean the boyfriend is the murderer. It doesn't mean Hildwin is not the murderer. But if you punch holes in the timeline, include the DNA evidence and shine a new light on the boyfriend, there is a mountain of reasonable doubt.

What's disturbing is the state knew a lot of this at the original trial but ignored it. A lot of it became public at an evidentiary hearing in 1992, and the DNA evidence came along in 2003. Yet the state did not consider the possibility that a mistake had been made. Instead, the state fought to perpetuate it.

McClain suggests that Tom Hogan, the original prosecutor, played fast and loose with the discovery process and took advantage of an inexperienced defense attorney.

Hogan, who now has a private practice in Hernando, did not return a phone call. Kenneth Nunnelley, who handled the case for the state in recent years and now works for the state attorney in Orlando, referred all questions to the Attorney General's Office. A spokesman for the attorney general said it was inappropriate to comment at this time.

Meanwhile, Hildwin was notified of the Supreme Court's decision by two prison guards Thursday afternoon. When McClain spoke to him by phone Friday, Hildwin was eager to know if, or when, he might be released.

Since being convicted, Hildwin has had one death warrant signed, fought cancer and sat in a cell as the world changed around him.

"It's been a long time,'' McClain said. "Longer than it needed to be.''

A wrongful conviction is a mistake and a tragedy.

Ignoring its possibility is something far worse.

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