The Florida Supreme Court reversed the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin after DNA evidence pointed to his innocence nearly 30 years later. DNA testing performed by the Innocence Project proves that critical evidence used to tie Hildwin to the crime belonged to the victim’s boyfriend, who the defense had always argued was the real killer. He is currently serving a sentence for sexually assaulting two minors.
Hildwin was convicted of the 1985 murder of Vronzettie Cox whose naked body was found in the trunk of her car. Investigators suspected that she had been raped and her death was ruled a strangulation. Hildwin became the prime suspect after stolen property from the vehicle was found in his possession. When questioned, he told investigators he had hitched a ride from the victim and her boyfriend, William Haverty and admitted he stole property from the vehicle. He denied sexually assaulting or murdering Cox and insisted that he left the car after the victim and her boyfriend got into a heated argument and pulled over.
At trial, the prosecution presented forensic evidence of serology, which has since been discredited. Serology is the scientific study of plasma serum and other bodily fluids and is mostly used in criminal justice cases for blood typing to match the defendant. The largest issue with serology is its wide scope. For example, in the Hildwin case, a prosecution expert from the FBI tested the bodily fluids found on two pieces of evidence at the scene (underwear and a washcloth). He wrongly testified that they matched Hildwin. He claimed that Hildwin was among only 11% of the world’s white male population who could have left the fluids behind. The expert also claimed that the evidence didn’t match Haverty.
It took until 2003 to prove that expert was wrong. DNA testing excluded Hildwin as the source of the bodily fluids on those pieces of evidence. The Innocence Project had to fight prosecutors for the next 7 years to get the state to run the DNA profile through the CODIS database to determine if the real contributor was present in the system. Haverty was a match. This new evidence supports the statements made by Hildwin to the police in the mid-1980s that he was innocent and the defense’s argument at the original trial that Haverty was likely the real killer.
The Innocence Project also uncovered during their investigation withheld exculpatory evidence. The victim’s nephew and another witness told investigators that they saw Cox and Haverty nearly 12 hours after the prosecution said Hildwin was killed. Yet they were never called to testify and the defense never knew about them.
This is the 4th time in the last year that the Florida Supreme Court has reversed a death sentence based upon evidence pointing to innocence. Florida leads the nation in the number of people on death row who have been exonerated.
Hildwin was nearly executed in 1990.
Hildwin’s case will return to the trial court where prosecutors will decide whether to retry his case.
[Above: Paul Hildwin hangs his head as the jury reads a guilty verdict at his trial.]