Defense pushes for dismissal as 34-year-old Hernando murder case heads to retrial

Paul Hildwin, attending a 2014 court hearing, spent nearly 30 years in prison after he was convicted of a 1985 murder in Hernando County. The conviction was overturned in 2014. [Times (2014)]
Paul Hildwin, attending a 2014 court hearing, spent nearly 30 years in prison after he was convicted of a 1985 murder in Hernando County. The conviction was overturned in 2014. [Times (2014)]
Published March 15, 2019

BROOKSVILLE — A 34-year-old murder case set for retrial next month returned to the courtroom Thursday with discussion that stretched into the night about the passage of time and the nature of memory.

In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court, citing DNA evidence and faulty science during the original trial, overturned a sentence and granted a retrial for Paul Hildwin, 58. Hildwin was sentenced to death and spent 28 years in prison in the 1985 slaying of 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox, whose body was found stuffed in a car trunk in a remote part of Hernando County.

Earlier this month, Hildwin's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case. At Thursday's hearing, defense attorney Lyann Goudie argued that Hildwin's original attorney, Daniel Lewan, was inexperienced and provided incompetent representation, failing to attack possible holes in the prosecution.

What's more, she said, many of the witnesses from Hildwin's 1986 trial are dead or unable to testify because of memory loss. That combination makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial, she said.

"When half this case is tried by former testimony, I'm second chair to Lewan," Goudie said. "I'm second chair to a third-year lawyer who'd never tried a murder case. ... Nobody asked the questions. Now (the witnesses) are dead."

Hildwin's retrial is scheduled to start April 1. The state has indicated it will seek the death penalty again.

As of Friday, Fifth Circuit Court Judge Stephen E. Toner had yet to issue a ruling on the motion to dismiss.

Toner and attorneys on both sides repeatedly brought up the unusual nature of a case so old and the need to bring fresh eyes to a complicated history and set of facts.

"Death is different, and the term 'super-due process' comes to mind," the judge said. "I am troubled by many concerns of things not being available to the defense, because of that. For want of a better phrase, it is what it is."

Prosecutors argued that the defense built its case for dismissal at the original trial over what may end up being non-issues. Rules of evidence may limit much of the original testimony from now-unavailable witnesses, Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman said, and he believes too many of the defense's other points are based on speculation.

Buxman hasn't come across a case that was dismissed solely because of the passage of time, he said.

The Supreme Court's 2014 ruling involved samples of semen and sweat found on a pair of women's underwear and a dishrag at the crime scene. The prosecution relied heavily on them in the original trial but linked the fluids to Hildwin with now-outdated science, the court said.

Modern testing tied the samples to Cox's boyfriend, William Haverty.

The defense argued at the original trial that Haverty was the most likely suspect in Cox's killing. Haverty later spent nearly 20 years in prison for an unrelated child sex abuse conviction, state records show.

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Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.