The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday vacated the death sentence of a Pasco County man convicted of killing his onetime girlfriend in 2006 and ordered that he be set free.
The court said the state's case against Derral Wayne Hodgkins was "purely circumstantial" and skewered prosecutors for mischaracterizing crucial DNA evidence.
Bjorn Brunvand, the Clearwater defense attorney who defended Hodgkins in his 2011 trial, praised the ruling.
"I'm ecstatic that they had the courage to rule in his favor," Brunvand said.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, whose agency investigated the murder, saw it differently.
"This Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent and has let a violent felon free," he said in a statement.
Hodgkins, now 55, was convicted of the first-degree murder of Teresa Lodge, a 46-year-old woman who served breakfast daily at Frank's Cafe in Land O'Lakes.
On Sept. 28, 2006, she was found choked, beaten and stabbed to death in her apartment. At first, investigators had no suspects. More than a year after Lodge's death, a long-delayed DNA test of scrapings from beneath her fingernails turned up a match: Hodgkins.
He and Lodge had dated in the 1980s, before he served 17 years in prison for raping a 12-year-old girl in Hillsborough County two decades earlier.
He was 28 years old then, and acknowledged driving the girl to a deserted road where he sexually assaulted her, beat her when she screamed at a passing car and then drove over her unconscious body when he fled.
Then in 2007, after the discovery of Hodgkins' DNA, two Pasco detectives questioned him about Lodge's murder. Hodgkins told an evolving story about when he'd last seen her.
First, he told detectives he hadn't been in contact with her since 2004. Then he said it was about two months before her death — they had run into each other at a gas station and hugged and kissed.
When confronted with the DNA evidence, Hodgkins then 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.
Prosecutors implored jurors to focus on those two points: that physical evidence pointed only to Hodgkins, and that he'd lied about when he'd last seen Lodge.
"There is no other DNA underneath her fingernails," Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin said in his closing argument. "There is no other perpetrator."
But in the opinion released Thursday, the Supreme Court said the state proved only that Hodgkins had contact with Lodge — not that he killed her.
What's more, the justices wrote that the state "hesitantly" described the DNA as bloody skin cells during oral arguments before the Supreme Court in 2013.
"This was a mischaracterization of the evidence," they wrote.
The justices said there was no evidence that blood was found in the DNA sample or that Hodgkins' blood was on Lodge or in her apartment. And they criticized an expert witness' description of the DNA evidence at the trial.
Another problem with the evidence: 18 fingerprints were lifted from the crime scene, none of which belonged to Hodgkins.
The court said Lodge was likely killed with a beer bottle found in the apartment with her blood on it. What wasn't on it? Hodgkins' fingerprints.
The defendant's son, Wayne Hodgkins, 34, said he cried when he heard about the court's decision. He believed "from the get-go" that his father was innocent.
"They just got too much history and they (were) just too loving with each other," said the son, who now lives in Honoraville, Ala.
He knew Lodge as "Aunt Teresa." He said she wrote two shoeboxes full of letters to his father during his first stint in prison. After the father was released, he and his son spent time with Lodge, fishing in her pond and watching movies.
When father and son found out she was dead, Wayne Hodgkins said, they cried together.
"I didn't want (anything) bad to happen to her and I'm sure my daddy didn't either," he said.
The court ordered that a judgment of acquittal be entered — which essentially declares Hodgkins not guilty and shields him from being tried again for murder — but it's unclear when he might leave prison.
When he was arrested on the murder charge, Hodgkins was on probation from the rape case. The new arrest constituted a violation of probation, for which he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Brunvand said he was working to sort out the ramifications of Thursday's ruling in that case.
He didn't know if Hodgkins, who's at Union Correctional Facility in Starke, had learned yet he had been freed from death row.