TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Nearly 30 years after Paul C. Hildwin was convicted of strangling a Hernando County woman, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned both his conviction and death sentence, saying that new DNA evidence "completely discredits" the case used by the state.
A divided court ruled 5-2 that Hildwin should be given a new trial.
The new evidence instead points to the person that Hildwin said had done the crime all along - the victim's boyfriend who was sentenced in 1998 to 20 years for attempted sexual battery of a child.
"It's a wonderful day but a very long and overdue one," said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with The Innocence Project working on the case. "It's taken us a decade to get him the justice he deserved."
Hildwin had been sentenced to die for killing 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox, whose nude body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car parked in some Hernando County woods in September 1985. She had been strangled with a T-shirt.
Prosecutors in 1986 contended DNA found on underwear and a rag located at the crime scene matched blood characteristics of Hildwin. Hildwin had been found with a check and rings belonging to the victim, but he contended he stole the items while Cox was fighting with her boyfriend William Haverty.
Years later, however, the DNA was tested and it showed that it did not belong to Hildwin. That wasn't enough to win him a new trial so Hildwin's lawyers pushed over the last eight years to get the DNA matched against federal and state criminal databases. That showed that the DNA matched Haverty.
The court in their ruling said that discovery undermines the case against Hildwin and shows that he is likely to win acquittal if he is placed on trial again. They said a "significant pillar" of the case as presented to the jury had "collapsed."
"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," states the unsigned opinion.
Two justices — Charles Canady and Ricky Polston — dissented from the ruling. Canady argued that the DNA evidence would be of "little consequence" and would not be conclusive enough to prove that Haverty was the killer.
Morrison said that Hildwin will remain on Florida's death row until the time passes for the state to argue for a rehearing in the case. Then it will be up to prosecutors in Hernando County to decide whether to pursue the nearly three-decade old murder case.
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