Carlton: After three decades, will Paul Hildwin still face death?

After Paul Hildwin spent decades on death row, DNA got his Hernando murder case overturned. What happens next? It's complicated.
After Paul Hildwin spent decades on death row, DNA tests said he did not rape murder victim Vronzettie Cox in Hernando in 1986. He is scheduled for a retrial next month, with a motion to dismiss pending.  {Times (2014)]
After Paul Hildwin spent decades on death row, DNA tests said he did not rape murder victim Vronzettie Cox in Hernando in 1986. He is scheduled for a retrial next month, with a motion to dismiss pending. {Times (2014)]
Published March 27
Updated March 27

In real life — and sometimes in Florida in particular — justice is not always a tidy episode of Law and Order. Sometimes it's one messy, murky concept.

And when the punishment for the crime is the death penalty, isn't that a problem?

Paul Hildwin, now 59, spent decades on death row for the murder of a woman in Hernando County. Evidence against him included the science of the moment that connected his bodily fluids to the crime.

Until it didn't.

Monday, he's scheduled to be tried again — and to face a death sentence again — in a case that will look very different.

In 1985, 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox gave Hildwin a ride when he ran out of gas on U.S. 19. Days later her naked body was found in the trunk of her car in the woods. She had been strangled with a T-shirt and, investigators suspected, raped.

At Hildwin's trial, prosecutors pointed to semen from her underwear and saliva from a washcloth in the car. The science at the time linked them to Hildwin. It also specifically excluded Cox's boyfriend.

Other evidence looked bad for Hildwin — like the fact that he had the victim's pearl ring and her radio, and that he forged and cashed a check from her checkbook for $75 at a nearby bank. At one point, Hildwin said he took those things and left when Cox and her boyfriend were arguing after they picked him up.

He was convicted and sentenced to die.

But years later, DNA testing on the underwear and washcloth — evidence the Innocence Project pushed for — matched not the convict on death row but the boyfriend, who was questioned in the investigation and to whom the defense pointed in the first trial.

The Florida Supreme Court concluded the new DNA evidence "changes the entire character of the case originally presented to the jury" and overturned his conviction.

With the new trial, things get more complicated. Even the judge seems to think so.

Lyann Goudie, the Tampa lawyer now representing Hildwin pro bono, filed a pretty interesting motion to dismiss the case outright.

Hildwin's attorney in 1986 was three years out of law school and never tried a murder, much less a death penalty case, the motion says. It calls that lawyer inexperienced and unqualified. "Evidence went unchallenged. I would challenge it," Goudie says. "Now I can't challenge it."

Wait, you're thinking. Why not?

According to the motion, at least a dozen witnesses from the trial 33 years ago — including key players — are dead or don't remember. If their original testimony was read into the record, that would mean no chance for vigorous questioning by the defense Goudie says was lacking in the first go-round. She says this essentially makes her second-chair to a lawyer who would not even have been qualified for this case by today's minimum standards.

Here was Circuit Judge Stephen E. Toner's take at a recent pre-trial hearing: "Death is different, and the term 'super due process' comes to mind. 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." He has not yet ruled.

Like I said: Complicated. Murky.

I can't tell you if Hildwin commited this horrible crime. But he was looking at execution and deserved the fairest trial and the best possible defense before being sent to death row. The victim in this case deserved that, too, as does her family.

Florida owed them all — and owes them still — to get it as right as we can.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

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