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Sure thing in death penalty: its cost

Here is some evidence the original jury in Paul Hildwin's first-degree murder case never heard:

A nephew of his victim recalled sitting in a bar and listening to the woman complain about her boyfriend on the evening of Sept. 9, 1985 — several hours after prosecutors said she had been strangled.

The boyfriend, now in prison for forcing a child to have sex, had written Vronzettie Cox a note saying that if she was not happy living with him, she could "f--- off and die."

A Hernando County Sheriff's Office report showed that the investigation originally focused on this boyfriend, William Haverty. And, finally, DNA testing has proved that semen found on her panties was not Hildwin's.

That was one reason that the case was back in court Tuesday, as it has been again and again in the 25 years since Hildwin's conviction.

Hildwin's lawyers asked that the DNA sample, which was analyzed in 2003, be compared with others in state and federal databases to possibly find out to whom it does belong. Citing a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case that cast doubt on Florida's standards for adequate legal representation, Hildwin's state-appointed lawyer, Martin McClain, also asked for a new trial.

Those are issues for Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink, who presided over Tuesday's hearing, and, probably, the Florida Supreme Court to decide.

Here are a couple of issues for the rest of us: Do we really want to execute somebody like Hildwin, 49, whose death penalty rests on such a questionable case? Do we really want to pay for the seemingly endless appeals?

I say no and no, that it's time to put an end to the death penalty in Florida — for the same reasons this has been done in New Jersey, New York and New Mexico since 2007, and for the same reasons Illinois lawmakers passed a ban last week.

These have little to do with the traditional arguments: that executions are immoral, that death is a cruel and unusual punishment. No, now the debate is about practical matters: whether the death penalty can be administered fairly and, if so, whether we can afford it.

Florida's looming budget deficit, as most of us know by now, is estimated at $3.5 billion.

On the other hand, some people might not know it is more expensive — a lot more expensive — to execute killers than to imprison and feed them for the rest of their lives.

A 2008 study by a liberal policy group, the Urban Institute, put the long-term cost of imposing the sentence of life in prison in Maryland at $1.1 million, compared to $3 million for death.

Though laws and therefore expenses differ from state to state, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, this study gives Floridians a pretty good idea how much they are paying to both house the state's 392 death-row inmates and guarantee their right to legal representation.

All this representation has resulted in delays of nearly 13 years in carrying out death penalties in Florida.

Hildwin has lasted nearly twice that long.

In 1992, he claimed that the lawyer in his original case didn't adequately represent him. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, to a point. It ordered a rehearing of the penalty phase of his trial, the part that determined he should be sentenced to death.

After that hearing didn't go his way, Hildwin argued that his second set of lawyers didn't do an adequate job. That appeal was turned down.

There was yet another appeal on this same grounds in 2007, and, prior to that, he went before the Florida Supreme Court, saying that the new DNA evidence proved his innocence. The court ruled that it didn't.

For a rough idea of the resources involved, consider that Tuesday's hearing occupied the time of five lawyers, a judge, a bailiff, a clerk and a court reporter. And though Hildwin's appeal schedule may be unusually active, other death-row inmates convicted in Hernando are not far behind. All of them have been there at least 20 years, including Freddie Lee Hall, who killed Hernando County sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn in 1978.

In other words, we're paying for death penalties that victims' families seldom get to see carried out, Dieter said. "The death penalty has become just a very expensive form of life without parole."

So let's just speed it up, the way they do in Texas, advocates say.

The problem is, you can't. At least not fairly, because, as DNA evidence has proved repeatedly in recent years, a lot of people have been sentenced to death who didn't deserve it.

Florida's 69 executions since 1976 rank fourth in the nation. But we lead the United States in exonerations since 1973, with 29, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Should Hildwin be one of them? Maybe not.

He forged one of his victim's checks, after all, and a witness said he pulled up at the bank driving a car that looked like Cox's.

After her body was found several days later in the trunk of that car, a search of Hildwin's house turned up her ring and her radio. Also, the analysis of the evidence on the semen, at a time before DNA tests were available, seems to rule Haverty out as a suspect.

But considering the later results of DNA tests and the statements the jury never heard, my impression, at least, is that that's about all you can say: Hildwin may be guilty. That's why the death has to be so expensive. We can't execute people for maybes.

Sure thing in death penalty: its cost 01/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 8:23pm]

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