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Man sentenced to death appeals his conviction

Published Oct. 18, 2005

A Hernando man sentenced to die in 1986 for strangling a woman is appealing his conviction, saying his defense attorney was inadequate and the man who prosecuted him, Tom Hogan Jr., was guilty of misconduct. "The prosecution intentionally withheld material evidence from the defendant and failed to correct false testimony at the trial of this case," says the 222-page motion filed in Circuit Court last week by Paul C. Hildwin's attorney.

Hildwin, 30, was convicted of the 1985 strangling of Vronzetti Cox, 42, whose body was discovered in the trunk of her car in an isolated part of northwest Hernando County. The new motion seeks to set aside the conviction and the death sentence.

Hogan, a private lawyer running for the state Senate District 4 seat, said he did nothing wrong in the Hildwin case. He said misconduct accusations are common in death-penalty appeals.

And Brooksville defense attorney Daniel Lewan said he did an adequate job of defending Hildwin in 1986.

Gov. Bob Martinez signed a death warrant for Hildwin in May, but the state Supreme Court stayed the execution. Hildwin now is represented by the Capital Collateral Representative's Office, the state agency that represents most inmates on death row.

The appeal says that Hogan, who was the chief assistant state attorney for Hernando County, violated Hildwin's rights during the trial by withholding investigative reports that Lewan could have used to cast suspicion away from his client and onto the victim's live-in boyfriend. Hogan also failed to correct false testimony given by a jailhouse informant, the motion says.

It attacks more than a dozen aspects of Hildwin's trial, from the jury instructions given by then-Circuit Judge L.

R. Huffstetler Jr. to the way Hildwin was shackled in the courtroom.

Lewan said it is standard procedure for the defense attorney to raise questions about every phase of the trial. "They literally have to, in my opinion, to protect every possible avenue and protect their client as best they can," he said.

A court-appointed attorney who was trying his first capital case, Lewan was accused in the appeal of being unprepared and not understanding the evidence the prosecutors were using.

Lewan acknowledged Tuesday that he told Huffstetler that he didn't understand some of the blood-type evidence Hogan was using, but Huffstetler refused to give him adequate time to study it.

Huffstetler, now a private lawyer, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Lewan, however, said he didn't think the forensic evidence was significant enough to have the verdict overturned.

Hogan, a Republican, said the filing of the appeal might have been timed to discredit him in the election next week against Sen. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon.

Jerrel Phillips, Hildwin's attorney, denied that.

The most damning allegation against Hogan contained in the document is that he pressured Hernando County Jail inmate Robert Worgess into testifying against Hildwin and then hid that from the jury. Worgess testified at the trial that Hildwin had confessed to the killing while he was in jail after his indictment.

Worgess testified, however, that Hildwin said he had stabbed Cox, when in fact she was strangled. The motion says that proves Worgess was lying and that Hogan knew it.

The document also says that eight days after Worgess testified, Hogan asked Huffstetler to release Worgess from the county jail, where he was being held for violating his probation on two previous grand-theft charges.

"Subsequent to Worgess's favorable testimony, Mr. Hogan appeared on his behalf to seek his immediate release from custody. .


. It would stretch the imagination to its limits to believe that Worgess simply never discussed with Mr. Hogan the ramifications of his "assistance,'

" the motion says.

If the jury had been told of a deal between Hogan and Worgess, it would have discounted the informant's testimony, the motion says.

But Hogan said he never promised Worgess, or any other criminal, anything in exchange for their testimony. He said he feared for Worgess's safety, and that is why he urged Huffstetler to release him. Worgess was released, and his probation was transferred to Michigan.