BROOKSVILLE — A Hernando County judge's ruling denying a death row inmate's latest appeal moves the notorious 24-year-old case closer to conclusion. But just barely.
Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink denied Paul Hildwin's claims of ineffective counsel on July 9.
Hildwin, now 49 and suffering from cancer, was convicted of murder in 1986. He argued that his attorneys at his 1996 sentencing hearing, Richard Howard and William "Bud" Hallman — now both Circuit Court judges — failed to fully investigate and present mitigating circumstances that might have spared him from the death penalty.
He filed the appeal in January 2001, but it went unheard until Tombrink held a hearing in January 2009. Prosecutors considered the ineffective counsel issue one of the final remaining obstacles to a death warrant.
In his seven-page ruling, Tombrink found that the alleged mistakes did not show that "counsel provided a deficient performance and second, that the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant," the two necessary tests Hildwin needed to prove.
The judge similarly dismissed another issue about Hildwin's attorneys failing to object to a statement in the prosecutor's closing argument.
The decision did not deter Hildwin's appellate attorney, capital public defender Mark Gruber, who appealed Tombrink's decision to the Florida Supreme Court last week.
The state's top court has previously rejected at least eight Hildwin appeals.
But Gruber, in an interview Wednesday, said an additional appeal in federal court is also pending. "I take issue with the idea that this case is almost done," he said.
Hildwin's case dates to September 1985, when two men discovered Vronzettie Cox's partly nude body stuffed inside her car's trunk.
Prosecutors told jurors that, four days earlier, Cox had stopped on U.S. 19 to offer Hildwin a ride after the stranger's car ran out of gas. Cox, 42, and Hildwin, then 25, drove toward his home off Knuckey Road in northwest Hernando County.
He raped her and strangled her with a gray T-shirt in a pine forest, prosecutors said.
Authorities starting looking at Hildwin as a suspect after he forged a $75 check from Cox's account the day of her death. Investigators also found Cox's portable radio and pearl ring in Hildwin's bedroom.
From the start, Hildwin maintained his innocence. He pointed the finger at Cox's boyfriend, but authorities dismissed the theory.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld Hildwin's 1986 conviction but ordered a new sentencing hearing, saying his defense attorney was ineffective.
In the second sentencing hearing in 1996, the jury spent five hours before deciding 8-4 in favor of the death penalty. Tombrink later agreed, telling Hildwin, "Death is the appropriate, lawful sentence. ... May God have mercy on your soul."