Florida Supreme Court overturns death sentence in 1985 Hernando murder

Paul Hildwin cries while being interviewed at the Hernando County Jail in 1996. [Times files]
Paul Hildwin cries while being interviewed at the Hernando County Jail in 1996. [Times files]
Published June 27, 2014

The same samples of bodily fluids that helped put Paul Hildwin on death row for a 1985 murder in Hernando County persuaded the Florida Supreme Court to overturn his conviction and death sentence on Thursday.

Prosecutors in his original trial relied heavily on now-outdated scientific evidence that claimed to show semen and sweat found at the crime scene likely came from Hildwin, the court's ruling said.

Modern DNA testing not only disproved this, but demonstrated the samples belonged to William Haverty, the boyfriend of the victim, 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the State's case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense," the court said in a 5-2 majority ruling.

"We vacate Hildwin's conviction for first-degree murder, vacate his death sentence, and remand for a new trial."

Prosecutors will now likely have to decide whether to retry the case, said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the judicial circuit that includes Hernando — a job made more difficult because of time that has passed since Cox was killed.

"The question is, what evidence is still there and what witnesses are still there," Ridgway said.

Another obstacle facing prosecutors, said one of Hildwin's lawyers, Martin McClain, is the amount of evidence that now points to Haverty, 50, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence for child sex abuse. McClain said he would argue, as did the original defense team, that Haverty was the most likely suspect.

Besides the results of the DNA tests, McClain said, he would be able to introduce other evidence not heard in the first trial, including a statement from a witness who said he talked to Cox several hours after the time prosecutors had placed as her time of death, and a note from Haverty saying that if Cox didn't like living with him, she could "f--- off and die."

If Hildwin is acquitted or the state elects not to retry him, he would probably become the first inmate released from Florida's death row primarily on DNA evidence, said Sam Gross, the University of Michigan law professor who edits the National Registry of Exonerations.

Such evidence had been a secondary factor in at least one death penalty exoneration in Florida, and Frank Lee Smith died on Florida's death row shortly before DNA evidence cleared him of his murder conviction in 2000.

The Death Penalty Information Center says 24 death-row inmates have been exonerated in Florida since the early 1970s, more than in any other state.

Hildwin said he met Cox when she picked him up while he was hitchhiking in September 1985.

After her body was found in the trunk of a car in a remote part of the county several days later, detectives discovered that Hildwin had forged a check from Cox's checkbook and interviewed a witness who said the car that Hildwin drove to the bank looked like Cox's.

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A search of Hildwin's house later turned up her ring and her radio.

But particularly important to the state's case, the court said, was semen on a pair of women's underwear and sweat on a wash cloth that were also found in the car.

Tests showed the semen and sweat came from a "nonsecretor," one of the small percentage of the population who do not secrete blood into other bodily fluids. Hildwin was found to be a nonsecretor while Haverty was a secretor.

That meant this evidence " was inconsistent with having been left by Haverty and consistent with having been left by Hildwin," the court said.

However, a DNA test in 2003 showed the fluids did not come from Hildwin. After the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that this finding was not grounds for a new trial, Hildwin asked that the samples be entered into a statewide DNA database.

This revealed that the fluids came from Haverty.

It also helped reveal, according to the court, that the "state prosecuted the case based on a false theory of scientific evidence that was woven throughout its presentation of evidence and argument — scientific evidence that has now been totally discredited."