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Florida inmate still on death row despite DNA proof of innocence discovered years ago

Published time: July 16, 2014 15:41
Paul Hildwin is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections (Reuters)

Paul Hildwin is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections (Reuters)

Years of legal wrangling over conclusive DNA evidence proving his innocence led the Florida Supreme Court to overturn Paul Hildwin’s murder conviction and death sentence two weeks ago. Yet Hildwin remains on death row.

Twenty-eight years after his conviction for a 1985 murder, Hildwin, 54, must wait - possibly for several months - for state prosecutors to decide whether to retry the case or drop the charges.

Two weeks ago, in a 5-2 ruling, the majority of the Florida Supreme Court said that “we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed.”

Hildwin’s case shows how a severe court backlog and legal maneuvering by state prosecutors can delay justice in the face of strong DNA evidence. Moreover, the case adds to the list of around two dozen death row inmates in Florida who have been found innocent - more than any other state. Hildman’s is the second death row case in a month overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.

"Hildwin really is a report card that there is a serious problem in the system that took this long," said Martin McClain, his attorney, Reuters reported. "They were hoping he would die, and it would go away."

Following the court’s ruling, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said it would not challenge the decision ordering a new trial for Hildwin. The inmate is set to be transferred from a state prison to a local jail in northern Florida.

Florida, with the second-largest roster of death row inmates in the United States (395), has had difficulty handling appeals to such cases, experts say. Florida is one of the few states where a jury can recommend a death sentence without a unanimous vote.

A study released in April estimated that no less than four percent of the approximately 3,000 US prisoners waiting to be put to death are in fact innocent of the crimes they committed, a shocking number that is far less than the inmates who are freed before execution.

Researchers determined that if all of those wrongfully convicted had their sentences cleared, the exoneration rate would jump from its current 1.6 percent to no less than 4.1 percent. By that logic, around 340 prisoners should have been released over the 30 years analyzed in the study, whereas only 138 were exonerated in that time.

Hildwin was put on death row for the death of Vronzettie Cox, a 42-year-old woman who was raped, strangled to death, and left in the trunk of a car in the woods of west-central Florida.

Hildwin had accepted a ride from Cox and her boyfriend, William Haverty, then later was found with a forged check he had stolen from her, as well as some of her possessions including a radio and money. He said he left the pair on a roadside once they got into a violent argument.

Yet prosecutors linked a pair of semen-stained underpants found in Cox’s car to Hildwin. Using available science at the time, the prosecution was able to pass Hildwin off as the likely suspect despite protests from the defense, which called Haverty the likely culprit.

In 2003, DNA tests proved Hildwin was not the source, yet the state avoided running evidence through a DNA database to search for a match, arguing the evidence was not eligible.

"It was just a stunning instance of foot dragging," said Nina Morrison, an Innocence Project attorney representing Hildwin.

In 2011, after the state Supreme Court ordered a DNA check, it was shown that Haverty, in jail for a child sex abuse charge, was responsible for the semen.

Yet over two years later, Hildwin still waits. He has spent around half his life in prison - largely in isolation - for a crime he did not commit.

"It just keeps seeming to get closer, but it just keeps being out of reach," said McClain.

Outside of wrongful death row convictions, several states eager to enact capital punishment have resorted to using controversial, some say inhumane, drug cocktails to execute inmates.

Ohio and Oklahoma have used the drugs, whose sources are shielded from the public, to execute inmates who have visibly writhed in pain during the lethal injection process, calling into question the validity of using such untested concoctions.

Despite the drug controversy, polls show a majority of Americans still support the death penalty.

According to a new YouGov/Huffington Post survey of 1,000 US adults after the botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton D. Lockett at the end of April, 65 percent of respondents said they either strongly favor (36 percent) or somewhat favor (29 percent) the death penalty for people convicted of murder. However, a Pew Research poll conducted in February found that only 55 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

Meanwhile, early this morning, a federal judge delayed a Missouri execution until at least midday Wednesday. The last-minute stay was granted based on evidence of mental illness.