CREDIT: AP Photo/Florida Department of Law Enforcement
In 1986, Paul Christopher Hildwin was one of two suspects in the murder of a Florida woman named Vronzettie Cox. The other suspect was Cox’s boyfriend, a man named William Haverty. Yet Hildwin was convicted in large part because of DNA evidence found at the crime scene — semen found in the victim’s underwear and saliva found in a nearby rag — which was recently discovered to belong to Haverty and not Hildwin. At the time of the trial, outdated scientific evidence falsely linked this semen and saliva to Hildwin.
Hildwin has now spent nearly three decades on death row for a crime that he most likely would not have been convicted of if the DNA evidence were available during his 1986 trial. On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged this reality, holding that “the totality of the evidence is of ‘such nature that it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial’ because the newly discovered DNA evidence ‘weakens the case against [the defendant] so as to give rise to a reasonable doubt as to his culpability.’”
At the time of Hildwin’s trial, the prosecutor’s theory was that the semen and salvia found at the scene of the crime belonged to a “nonsecretor” — a person who does not secrete blood into their other bodily fluids. Hildwin is a nonsecretor while Haverty is a secretor. After Hildwin’s conviction, however, this claim was disproven. Years later, DNA testing of the evidence left over from the trial proved that it belonged to Haverty and not Hildwin, undermining the prosecution’s case to such a degree that the state supreme court determined that a jury probably would not have convicted Hildwin.
Yet, while the doubtful conviction against Hildwin was ultimately thrown out — the state now has the option to retry Hildwin, if they choose — the events that led to Thursday’s Florida supreme court decision demonstrate just how difficult it is to attack an erroneous conviction, even when that conviction is fatally undermined by DNA evidence.
In 2006, after testing proved that the DNA evidence found near the victim did not belong to Hildwin, the state supreme court voted 4-3 not to overturn his conviction. Hildwin’s attorneys then had to return to court to earn him the right to compare the now-unidentified DNA to profiles in an FBI-maintained DNA database — and throughout this litigation Hildwin remained behind bars and on death row. Hildwin did not ultimately receive confirmation that the DNA evidence found on the scene belonged to Haverty until 2011, five years after the Florida Supreme Court denied his earlier request for a new trial. Thursday’s order came two-and-a-half years after he obtained this evidence proving that crucial DNA evidence actually belonged to the other suspect in Cox’s murder.
And, for all of this time, Hildwin has been on death row, serving time for a crime that he most likely could not have been convicted of if his jury had known in 1986 what we now know.