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    DNA results may lead to rehearing

    Attorneys for a death row inmate say the test results clear their client, but a Hernando Circuit judge says the case is not so clear-cut.

    By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 5, 2003


    BROOKSVILLE -- Defense attorneys for a Hernando County man who's been on death row for 16 years told a judge Tuesday they have new DNA evidence that clears their client.

    "If the jury had known then what we know now, there would have been a different verdict," said Mark Gruber, an attorney with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state office representing Paul Christopher Hildwin. "We know now that this trial was fatally flawed."

    Hildwin, 42, was convicted in 1986 of strangling 42-year-old Vronzettie Cox during a rape attempt and robbery, and a jury took less than an hour to decide he should be sentenced to death.

    In court Tuesday, his lawyers asked Hernando Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink to release Hildwin from prison based on tests showing semen and saliva collected from the crime scene did not belong to Hildwin.

    Tombrink denied the request but asked for a written report from the lawyers laying out their new evidence.

    "I don't think (the new evidence) is as clear-cut as the defense would have it," Tombrink said. "But it's something that has to be considered in the case."

    After getting the written report, the judge could order a hearing on the new evidence.

    Last month, a DNA test played a part in the freeing of a Florida death row inmate after 17 years. And Gov. Jeb Bush has made DNA testing available to every inmate on death row, saying he will examine each case as it arises.

    Assistant State Attorney Rock E. Hooker said he does not think the DNA evidence would have made a difference at Hildwin's trial.

    "This trial was not about body fluids," Hooker said. "It was about Hildwin being in her car, using her check, having her stuff in his house."

    Gruber disagreed, citing the state's theory that Hildwin raped and murdered Cox, an argument buoyed by blood evidence during the trial. Without that evidence, he said, the state's case would have fallen apart.

    "If the defense had dropped this bombshell (at trial), I seriously think there would have been acquittal in a matter of minutes," Gruber said.

    Hildwin was linked to the murder after he cashed a forged check of Cox's and had her ring and her radio when deputies searched his house. A witness testified that Hildwin was driving Cox's car when he cashed the check at a Brooksville bank, and her purse was found in the woods behind his house. Cox's body was discovered in the trunk of her car.

    Hildwin admitted forging Cox's name on a $75 check and cashing it, but he denied killing the woman.

    In 1986, six men and six women found Hildwin guilty of first-degree murder.

    The new evidence comes from Orchid Cellmark, a Maryland forensic DNA testing laboratory. The report, dated Jan. 29, shows that semen on a pair of women's underpants as well as saliva from a washcloth presented as evidence in the trial did not come from Hildwin.

    During the trial, prosecutors presented an FBI analysis showing the semen and saliva probably came from Hildwin.

    Hildwin's defense attorneys plan to re-evaluate all the evidence, then file a motion for a new trial.

    Death row inmate Rudolph Holton was freed Jan. 24 after the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial because prosecutors hadn't shared some investigative evidence with his trial defense.

    DNA tests also had disproved one piece of evidence, a hair, and fellow jail inmates had recanted their testimony. Prosecutors reluctantly determined that they didn't have enough other evidence to retry Holton for the 1986 murder of a Tampa teen.

    Two years ago, a DNA test cleared Frank Lee Smith of Broward County of rape and murder, but he had died of cancer 101/2 months earlier.

    Twenty-four other people condemned to die in Florida since 1972 have been released from death row after non-DNA evidence suggested that they were innocent, or at least wrongly convicted because of serious judicial errors. Florida leads the nation in flawed death cases.

    Representatives of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said this case puts Florida's legal system on trial right alongside Hildwin.

    "It's very troubling to me that prosecutors are willing to just fight tooth and nail even when it's clear that there's an injustice," said group director Abe Bonowitz.

    Because his state-run office will lose funding at the end of June, Gruber said, the pressure is on to have Hildwin's case heard again.

    In his budget proposal last month, Gov. Jeb Bush recommended closing the office and transferring its functions to private lawyers to save about $4-million a year.

    Death penalty opponents argue a shift to private lawyers will result in a drop-off in the expertise and experience of lawyers handling capital cases.

    "We're going to file something even if there is nobody there to argue it," Gruber said.

    -- Times staff writer Sydney Freedberg and staff researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was also used.

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