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Listening to the voice that asks: 'What if?'

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2003


I was there the night in 2000 when they stuck a needle in Bennie Demps' arm and put him down like a dog.

I will never forget the rambling declaration he delivered from that gurney in the death chamber, in which he insisted he was innocent of killing another inmate.

What if. What if. What if Demps was right?

This is the question only a few people in Florida want to ask about death row. It would take courage to frame the words, to move the mouth, to shout over the hard wind of the popular view.

I don't know what makes us different from other states. If Illinois' conservative-minded governor is man enough to give up the wrestling match with his conscience, why can't ours?

Gov. Bush has been busy instead talking up the idea of doing away with the agency of state lawyers who represent the condemned.

But he is not entirely an unmoveable object. He has decreed that anybody on death row who wants DNA testing of the evidence against him can get it.

DNA played a part in the implosion of the case against Rudolph Holton, who was freed two weeks ago after 16 years in Starke for the murder of a Tampa teenager.

Two key witnesses against Holton, cons themselves, recanted. A police report that pointed to another suspect wasn't turned over to the defense. And the DNA test showed that a hair found in the victim's mouth wasn't Holton's.

Cases rarely collapse so neatly as this one. They are just as rarely slam-dunks for the prosecution.

More often, the cases are messy and complicated, like that against Paul Hildwin, a convicted rapist who was found guilty of the 1986 Hernando County rape and strangulation of Vronzettie Cox.

He sure looks guilty. After Cox was found dead, Hildwin was caught with her checkbook, ring and radio. He even cashed one of her checks. And chemical tests performed on the victim's underwear and a wash cloth taken at the time of the trial suggested the stains on them came from Hildwin.

But DNA evidence -- the gold standard for investigative accuracy -- revealed this week that the semen and stains belonged to somebody other than Hildwin.

The DNA evidence implies another killer, perhaps an accomplice. Hildwin's own explanation, stretch though it may be, is that he came by Cox's possessions when he took them from her car as he got out. He blamed the murder on her boyfriend, whom the police investigated and cleared. He said the boyfriend was with Cox when Cox gave him a ride, and the two argued with each other all the time he was in the car.

The 17-year-old case will drag on for still more months or years as the evidence is re-examined and re-examined to answer that what if, what if, what if question about Hildwin.

That's the question that gnawed at George Ryan, the Illinois governor who in January commuted the sentences of his state's death row inmates as he left office. Ryan believes in the death penalty. He also believes in getting it right.

Something went terribly wrong in the case of Fla. vs. Holton. Even Gov. Bush believes that. He's asked the FDLE to investigate why those two witnesses recanted.

And something may also have gone wrong in the case against Paul Hildwin. How could the evidence go in two utterly opposite directions? Could it be bad police work? Dumb luck?

The judge hearing the Hildwin case asked the defense this week to lay out all its new evidence in writing so that he can decide if a further hearing is needed. The judge has no choice. He has to take the uncomfortable fact of the DNA evidence seriously, regardless of how much the rest of us, at ease with the death penalty, would ignore it.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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