Sunday, December 18, 2011
By TONY HOLT | Hernando Today
Published: December 18, 2011
The wait has been excruciating for cancer patient Paul Hildwin and his attorney, Martin McClain.
Earlier this month, they got the break they had long been waiting for. There was no doubt it was coming, but it took longer than expected.
The DNA evidence found at a murder scene didn't come from Hildwin, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It came from William Haverty, who has been in prison since a 1998 rape conviction.
Hildwin has lived on death row for 25 years. He was convicted in the slaying of Vronzettie Cox, 42, whose body was found in the trunk of her car the morning of Sept. 13, 1985 in the area of Royal Highlands — a rural community north of Weeki Wachee.
During the course of the trial, prosecutor Tom Hogan referred more than once to the fluids found on the victim's underwear and a nearby washcloth, which was discovered in the backseat.
Tests showed the fluids were semen and saliva, according to court testimony.
The 1986 trial took place before the advent of DNA evidence, but Hogan argued the semen came from a nonsecretor — someone whose blood type can't be traced through bodily fluids. Nonsecretors make up 11 percent of the world's population, said Hogan.
Hildwin was a nonsecretor, Hogan said. Haverty, who was Cox's boyfriend at the time of her death, was not.
Hildwin's defense attorney, Daniel Lewan, tried connecting the killing to Haverty, but was unsuccessful.
Hildwin was caught cashing one of Cox's stolen checks. He also gave different stories to authorities when questioned. He also told an incredible story to jurors when the inexperienced Lewan allowed him to testify, said McClain, who has since handled most of the appellate work on behalf of Hildwin.
There were other issues glossed over by the state during the trial, according to defense motions.
The window of opportunity for the slaying was small – roughly 90 minutes. During that time, the state argued Hildwin walked to a store off U.S. 19, murdered Cox, stuffed her body into the trunk, parked the car in the woods, cashed the stolen check and then walked back to his own abandoned car along the highway.
It was the forensic evidence against Hildwin, which now has been proven false, that put the case over the top for the state, McClain said. It was presented to jurors through the testimony of an FBI lab technician.
"The FBI analyst testimony excluding Haverty as the contributor of the material was and has been the lynchpin of the state's case," said McClain.
McClain said Hogan was secretive about the presentation of the evidence. Lewan didn't know about it until the fourth day of trial. McClain, through interviews, arguments and court filings, has been a sharp critic of Hogan's prosecutorial techniques.
Hogan now runs a private practice out of Brooksville. Months ago, he told Hernando Today he was still convinced Hildwin was the killer no matter who the DNA belonged to.
McClain said the state had long "locked out" the DNA from being uploaded into the database. It did so because it was convinced it wasn't Haverty's DNA.
"It's their actions that have caused this delay," said McClain. "My client has struggled to stay alive."
In a motion filed last week, McClain called the tactics by the Florida Attorney General's Office "indefensible." He said the attitude from the state has been inappropriate.
"Mr. Hildwin has been seeking an order for more than eight years comparing this sample to Mr. Haverty over the State's objection," he stated in his motion.
No one from the Attorney General's Office has commented about the Hildwin case because the appeal remains open.
Hildwin's cancer has been in remission. McClain said his client is relying on prison staff for his medical care as he awaits additional surgeries.
McClain had three appellate motions tied to Hildwin, including the one asking the state to upload the DNA.
Following his latest victory, McClain hopes it will accelerate the other motions and eventually overturn the verdict.
McClain said when he told his client about the latest development in the case, Hildwin smiled at him.
"I told you so," McClain said, recalling Hildwin's words. "I knew it. I knew it."