BROOKSVILLE — DNA evidence persuaded the Supreme Court of Florida to overturn the conviction of death-row inmate Paul Christopher Hildwin on Thursday.
In 1986, Hildwin was convicted of first-degree murder by a Hernando County jury in the strangulation death of 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox, whose naked body was found in the trunk of her car the previous year. Cox had also been raped.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court, which covers Hernando County.
A majority of the state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that DNA evidence found on Cox’s underwear and on a wash cloth belonged to Cox’s ex-boyfriend, William Haverty, currently serving a 20-year sentence in Florida on child sex-abuse charges.
In its conclusion, justices on the majority said that circumstantial evidence against Hildwin has been “entirely discredited” and scientific evidence against him was “unreliable.”
Justices Charles T. Canady cast a dissenting opinion with which Justice Ricky Polston agreed.
“The newly-discovered evidence identifying the donor of the DNA left on (items at the crime scene) changes the entire character of the case originally presented to the jury,” justices on the majority said in the conclusion.
The state Attorney General’s Office has 15 days to file for a rehearing with the Supreme Court, said Martin McClain, Hildwin’s attorney.
“They usually don’t” grant rehearings, McClain said of the state Supreme Court.
If the state Supreme Court declines a rehearing, the case will go to Circuit Court, McClain said.
Whitney Ray, press secretary for state Attorney General Pam Bondi, said that the office is reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision, but did not comment further.
A request for comment from Hildwin’s prosecutor, Tom Hogan Jr., was not immediately returned Thursday.
McClain said that he will not be able to speak to Hildwin until today, so he was unable to gauge his client’s reaction to the decision.
Also aiding Hildwin was Nina Morrison of The Innocence Project, a New York non-profit agency that assists inmates who hope to use DNA evidence to overturn their convictions.
“The (local) prosecutor’s office will have to decide if they will seek a conviction and death sentence again in a costly retrial,” said Morrison, the agency’s senior staff attorney. “The average death penalty trial is hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.
“After 30 years, it’s hard to prosecute, and the DNA evidence has crippled the state’s case,” Morrison said. “We believe the DNA evidence proves that Paul Hildwin was innocent of these crimes.”
Hildwin, 54, has battled a form of blood cancer while incarcerated in solitary confinement at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.
Hildwin’s attorneys have worried that their client would not survive long enough for court machinations to conclude.
“This is not a case where Paul was convicted because DNA was unavailable,” Morrison said. “The FBI conducted blood group analysis. They incorrectly said that Paul was a possible source and incorrectly ruled out William Haverty.
“Among the many tragedies in this case is if there had been DNA testing 30 years ago, Paul might not have been sent to prison.”
Cox’s body was found in the trunk of her car in Royal Highlands on the morning of Sept. 13, 1985.
Detectives at the time suspected that Cox’s then-boyfriend, Haverty, could have had something to do with the crime, according to reports from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
Haverty has been in prison since 1998. He was convicted of sexually battering a girl younger than 12 years old. Prison records show that he is scheduled to be released on Dec. 24.
Hildwin was linked to Cox after he cashed one of her checks the day she was believed to have been killed. He was also in possession of Cox’s checkbook and jewelry.
On Thursday, Morrison said that it took an extraordinarily long time for the state Attorney General’s Office to agree to run DNA evidence through a national database.
“We’ve had the DNA excluding Hildwin as the (killer) for more than 10 years,” she said. “For nine years, we fought a battle with the Attorney General’s Office to take the simple step of running the DNA profile into the national database, which they refused to do until we got an order forcing them to do so.
“Paul lost eight years because of the state’s refusal. They could have done it in a matter of days. I’m still mystified as to why they took those steps.”