Attorney fighting to overturn death sentence in 1985 murder
Tony HoltBROOKSVILLE - The defendant's credibility was shattered, certain evidence was withheld from jurors and the science presented during trial — which at the time sealed the case for the state — was faulty, an appellate attorney said Monday.
Published: August 8, 2012
Published: August 8, 2012
Paul Hildwin didn't have a chance when he stood trial in 1986 for the murder of Vronzettie Cox, said Martin McClain, who gave an energized and emotional plea to Hernando County Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink Jr.
McClain has worked for much of the past two decades to overturn Hildwin's guilty conviction and death sentence.
He scored a long-awaited victory in December 2011 when bodily fluids recovered at the Sept. 13, 1985, crime scene — originally thought to have been matched to Hildwin — was actually matched to Cox's then-boyfriend, William Haverty.
It took years before a judicial ruling was handed down to allow for the samples to be submitted to a government database for testing. Based on the latest DNA match, McClain is seeking a new trial for his client. He was joined at Monday's evidentiary hearing by an attorney with the Innocence Project.
Hildwin, 52, has spent half his life on death row.
Tombrink will make his ruling within the next 60 days on whether the defendant should get a new trial.
McClain argued for more than an hour Monday. Senior Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelly, by comparison, spoke for less than 10 minutes.
Nunnelly said the DNA results are irrelevant. Haverty's DNA, which was discovered on Cox's rolled-up underwear in the backseat of her car, was located at the scene because the two were dating.
The new findings, he said, change nothing other than confirmation the couple had sexual relations before she was killed. There was still "overwhelming evidence" that placed Hildwin at the murder scene — including his possession of Cox's checkbook and jewelry.
Hildwin was linked to Cox, 42, after he cashed one of her checks the day she was believed to have been killed. Cox's body was found in the trunk of her car, which was abandoned in the Royal Highlands area near U.S. 19.
Hildwin, a convicted rapist, also changed his story a few times. Prior to his arrest, he gave authorities one explanation, which dramatically changed when he took the stand one year later. He testified he saw Haverty and Cox fight each other, at which time he sneaked away, but not before swiping Cox's checkbook.
His car had run out of gas along U.S. 19 and he needed cash to get home, Hildwin said.
McClain said the prosecution — led by Tom Hogan, a former assistant state attorney who now runs a private practice in Brooksville — called an FBI forensics expert to the stand during the 1986 trial.
The witness linked the bodily fluids at the scene to Hildwin — based on the fact that only 11 percent of the world's white male population could have left the fluids behind. Hildwin at the time was considered a match while Haverty was not.
The incorrect evidence was mentioned during Hogan's opening argument, presented by the witness during the trial and mentioned again by Hogan during his closing statements, according to court documents.
Hogan had told jurors the bodily fluid on Cox's underwear was "one more piece of evidence that leads to Paul Hildwin and it's one more piece of evidence that eliminates William Haverty," according to court transcripts.
"Now we know as a result of the (recent) upload that information was false," said McClain during Monday's hearing. "That's the problem in this case."
In the eyes of jurors, the old forensic evidence excluded Haverty as a legitimate suspect in Cox's slaying. The new findings — along with more information that has since surfaced — would likely result in a different outcome if the trial were held today, said McClain.
Haverty, now 49, is serving a prison sentence for a 1998 conviction on sexual battery against a victim younger than 12 years old. He is scheduled to be released in March 2015.
Additionally, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office had early suspicions about Haverty. A note was left behind at the couple's home, which included a profane and threatening message written by Haverty that was aimed at his girlfriend.
A relative of Cox also saw her and Haverty at a bar — 12 hours after Cox was believed to have been murdered — at which time he heard Cox complain about the relationship and ask him whether he knew anyone she could hire to damage her boyfriend's car, according to sheriff's records.
The relative did not testify at trial, but later did so during an appellate hearing.
Detectives said Cox was killed four days before her body was found, but witnesses told investigators they had seen her with her boyfriend after she was thought to have died.
Their statements could have damaged the state's credibility when it came to the proposed timeline from when Cox was killed to when Hildwin was arrested, McClain said.
Attorneys working on behalf of Hildwin since his conviction accused the state of purposely withholding that evidence from the defendant's attorney, who was trying his first murder case.
The same attorney was unaware of the state's forensic evidence that tied Hildwin to the victim's underwear, McClain said.
He didn't know about it until Hogan mentioned it during his opening arguments. The defense attorney had only a weekend to prepare for it, according to court records.
McClain has contended for years the incorrect data presented to jurors reshaped the entire trial and tilted it in favor of the prosecution.