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Science, DNA speak, but do they tell the whole story?

Published August 8, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - One of the last things Vronzettie Cox did on Sept. 9, 1985, was give a ride to a hitchhiker named Paul Christopher Hildwin when he ran out of gas on U.S. 19 in Hernando County.

Four days later, Cox's naked body was found in the trunk of her car, not far from Hildwin's home. She had been strangled with the T-shirt that still hung around her neck.

Hildwin forged a $75 check taken from Cox's checkbook at a nearby bank. The clerk testified she saw Hildwin driving Cox's car. In Hildwin's house, police found a ring and a radio that belonged to Cox.

One other thing: Stains from semen and saliva on a pair of panties and a washcloth in Cox's back seat belonged to a "non-secretor." That meant a person in the 11 percent of the population whose blood type doesn't show up in other bodily fluids.

Hildwin was a non-secretor, too, the prosecutor stressed as he waved Cox's tattered bra to the jury. Cox had probably been raped before being murdered, he said, though her body was found too late to be sure.

Hildwin claimed that he had merely stolen Cox's belongings. He claimed Cox's boyfriend was in the car, too, and the two had been arguing when he left. But he was convicted and sentenced to die. His appeals have dragged on since.

Early in 2003, armed with the modern science of DNA testing, Hildwin's lawyers submitted the semen and saliva samples that had been found in Vronzettie Cox's car 17 years previously.

They weren't Hildwin's.

* * *

Our early debates about DNA testing turned on a black-and-white question. What should we do when DNA tests provide slam-dunk proof of innocence? We came down on using such evidence.

But Hildwin's case presents a grayer question. There is other evidence to consider. Should we now throw out 17 years of trying to make Hildwin's sentence stick, and give him a brand-new trial?

There is little guidance in our body of law. The most important precedent is the unexcitingly named Jones vs. State, decided in 1991. That case says new evidence justifies a new trial only when it would "probably" result in the defendant's acquittal.


What the heck does that mean?

* * *

To prove Hildwin would "probably" be acquitted now, his state-paid lawyers tried a novel approach. They held a series of mock trials. They bused some of the citizens of Hernando County down to a trial consultant in Tampa as "jurors."

One 12-member panel, given the "old" version of the case, still voted to convict Hildwin. But two panels that heard the "new" version voted that the state had not proved he was guilty of first-degree murder.

Encouraged, Hildwin's lawyers asked for a new trial.

Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink Jr. said no. He ruled the new DNA evidence "does NOT show that the defendant is innocent of the crime." He listed the other evidence: The forged check. The clerk identifying Cox's car. The radio and ring in Hildwin's house. (There also was a jailhouse snitch who claimed Hildwin confessed, although such snitches are always questionable.)

Now the case is headed back to the Florida Supreme Court.

In no way is Hildwin a sympathetic figure. He had been previously convicted of rape and attempted sodomy, in a home invasion in New York state. Nice guy.

And yet, the legal question remains. There is no direct proof that Hildwin murdered Cox. Would the jury have convicted him on the circumstantial evidence alone, without the prosecutor waving Cox's underwear, and hammering on the non-secretor issue?

Might the defense have turned suspicion toward the boyfriend, had it possessed the knowledge that the DNA didn't match?

Even with the DNA tests, I do not think we can declare, outright, that a new jury would "probably" acquit Hildwin - which means the tough Jones standard is not met. But it is a heck of a close call. The Supremes might well use this case to set a new precedent.

[Last modified August 7, 2004, 23:19:20]

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