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DNA unearths doubt in death-row case
Sat Mar 19, 2011 7:21pm

The case has gnawed at him, frustrated him and infuriated him for the past 20 years.

Martin J. McClain has handled most of the appellate work on behalf of Paul Christopher Hildwin, a cancer-stricken death-row inmate.

Twelve jurors in September 1986 convicted the Brooksville man of first-degree murder in a Hernando County courtroom.

They listened to him testify in his own defense. They thought he came off desperate and dishonest.

Jurors watched as a veteran prosecutor verbally plowed into him. They sorted through 60 exhibits in the deliberation room. They heard witness testimony much of it gut-wrenching.

They didn't hear or see everything.

"The state, simply stated, wanted a conviction at any cost regardless of whether or not Paul Hildwin actually committed the murder with which he was charged," McClain stated in a motion six years after the verdict.

In the years since, McClain has continued to advocate for Hildwin's release from death row. In the process, he's also been a sharply outspoken critic of the State Attorney's Office and the 5th Judicial Circuit.

He has said the state carried out a "gross manipulation of the evidence" before and during the trial.

Based on the myriad circumstances, he said a conviction and death sentence for Hildwin was unavoidable.

"A conviction obtained on such half truths and perjured testimony cannot be allowed to stand," he wrote in a motion for appeal. "Relief is appropriate."

He said he felt so much was wrong with the case, from the prosecutor's perceived guile to the way the Hildwin's attorney was appointed.

To the best of his ability, McClain said, defense attorney Daniel Lewan tried to insert reasonable doubt into the minds of jurors by pinning the murder on the victim's boyfriend, William Haverty.

Haverty and the victim, Vronzettie Cox, had a volatile relationship. Cox, 42, was nearly twice the age of Haverty. Based on interviews and evidence presented at the trial, the couple had an open relationship, which often led to angry outbursts from Haverty, according to the defense.

Haverty said on the stand during the trial he never lost his temper with Cox.

He claimed the two never fought.

"She did her thing and I did mine," he said.

Lewan didn't have much luck shifting suspicion from Hildwin to Haverty during the trial.

A bar owner testified he once kicked out Haverty because he got into a fight.

Lewan called another witness who said Haverty had bought her a beer at the same bar. He wanted to get the woman to say whether she thought Haverty was trying to lure her away for a one-night stand, but his leading questions drew loud objections from prosecutors. The judge sustained all of them.

The trial lasted two weeks, but jurors made up their minds on a guilty verdict in less than two hours. They were unanimous on the recommendation for death.

All of McClain's work on the case led to a second sentencing hearing in 1996. Jurors decided 8-4 to keep Hildwin on death row.

Cox's naked corpse was discovered the morning of Sept. 13, 1985. Her body was stuffed into the trunk of her Chevrolet sedan, which was stuck in a wooded area near Finch Road in Royal Highlands. Forensics specialists concluded she had been left there for four days.

Her bag of dirty laundry was in the backseat. On top of the bag was a pair of panties intertwined with a rolled up pair of shorts. There also was a washcloth with traces of saliva.

Hildwin cashed one of Cox's checks at a bank and soon thereafter was arrested for check forgery.

Before long, authorities surmised Hildwin hitchhiked the morning of Sept. 9, 1985 and was picked up by Cox, who was headed to a laundry facility near High Point. He raped and beat the victim, drove her to a wooded area near his dad's house and murdered her.

Hildwin's car had run out of gas the night before on the way back from a drive-in movie theater. Both he and the two women accompanying him were broke.

The three of them spent the night in the car along U.S. 19. Hildwin decided to walk the following morning to the nearby JP Mart to get money and gas. He left before 10 a.m. and returned roughly 90 minutes later. He had cash and a radio and looked as though he had cleaned himself up, according to the two women who would later testify at the trial.

Detectives said the radio had belonged to Cox.

The state believed Hildwin met Cox, committed the murder, stole the car, parked it in the woods, washed up, cashed the forged check and hitched a ride back to his car within that time frame.

"You look at what the state had," McClain said. "It was really just a house of cards."

DNA left at the scene was not Hildwin's

"We tried to judge each case on the admissible evidence," said Tom Hogan, who was the lead prosecutor in the Hildwin trial.

He now runs a private practice in Brooksville.

"I remember the case He had her checkbook and he wrote a check to himself. The teller identified him," Hogan said. "He's the right guy."

One of the key components for the prosecution was the forensic evidence left in the backseat of the car.

In 1985, before the advancement of DNA technology, the FBI tested the seminal fluid left behind in Cox's rolled-up underwear and the saliva left on the washcloth.

Lab technicians determined the seminal fluid came from a nonsecretor someone whose blood type can't be traced through bodily fluids. Nonsecretors make up only 11 percent of the world's population, according to forensic experts who testified at the time.

Hildwin was a nonsecretor. Haverty was not.

Seventeen years later, a private company compared the DNA to Hildwin. The results came back negative.

The DNA has never been tested against Haverty.

Hogan thinks even if the seminal fluid was Haverty's it proves nothing other than the two probably had sexual relations at some point before her death.

In an evidentiary hearing in February 1992, Lewan testified he didn't know bodily fluid evidence was going to be presented at Hildwin's trial.

"I had been, in fact, informed of directly the opposite, that there was no bodily fluid evidence to be presented," he said.

"This was a large body of legal materials and scientific materials regarding this type of evidence," he continued during his testimony. "And no, I don't feel that I ever was fully prepared for it."

In the same 1992 hearing, Hogan said Lewan knew about the semen evidence before trial, but purposely acted as though he hadn't.

"We had put together a very good case," Hogan testified. "We had put together, you know, a pretty lock-tight case combining circumstantial evidence and inconsistent statements of the defendant, along with a lot of good physical evidence."

Lewan said he directly asked Hogan prior to the trial why blood and saliva samples were taken of his client.

"It was a mistake," Lewan recalled Hogan telling him. "I thought there was something, but there wasn't."

Lewan said he was blindsided during Hogan's opening arguments at trial when the prosecutor mentioned his plans to present the evidence to jurors.

"This was the first knowledge I had of any evidence linking my client to these seminal and saliva deposits," said Lewan.

Three appeals have been filed in the Hildwin case, all of which are being handled by McClain. One of those appeals includes a petition to have the Florida Department of Law Enforcement upload the unknown DNA into the database.

"The DNA results are a huge circumstance that does huge damage to the state's case," said McClain.

Haverty has been in prison since his 1998 conviction on sexual battery charges. The victim was younger than 12 years old, according to court records.

Green and unprepared for trial, nave about Haverty

Lewan's intuition was telling him he didn't have all the evidence before trial.

He said so during the 1992 evidentiary hearing, during which revelations surfaced that not all of the vital information in the murder case was provided to the defense.

Lewan was a few years removed from law school and was an emergency fill-in for the public defender's office.

In spite of the long odds of having a murder trial fall onto his lap, his number got called.

Lewan had no co-counsel. He was about to go up against the savvier and vastly more-experienced Tom Hogan, who was teamed with another prosecutor.

More than five years after jurors returned with guilty and death verdicts for his client, Lewan discovered how much evidence he never saw before and during the trial.

There were sheriff's reports he didn't know about, not to mention a vulgar and threatening hand-written letter from Haverty to the victim.

Haverty jotted down "(expletive deleted) off and die" on the back of an envelope and left it in plain view for Cox. It also stated, "If you don't like it, you can leave."

Ralph Decker was one of the detectives who worked the case.

Decker was no longer employed with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office when he brought it with him to the courtroom for the 1992 hearing.

McClain said he was floored when he saw the note. He said Decker told him he brought some materials from the case home with him after he resigned and had kept it in his garage for years.

Lewan also was dumbfounded.

"Part of the theory of the defense was that the relationship between the victim and Mr. Haverty had been deteriorating and this would have been evidence of that deterioration," Lewan said during his testimony at the hearing.

Haverty had an alibi the morning Cox went missing, according to the sheriff's office.

That same person who initially told detectives he saw Haverty at home the morning of the murder told a different story later. The witness admitted he might have had his dates mixed up, McLain said.

He might have seen Haverty at the house seven days prior to the killing, according to court records. That was the only time he remembered seeing him.

There also was the issue of the missing person report.

Perry Louis Flinn, who was a shift supervisor in the sheriff's office's communication's center, took the report from Cox's sister and Haverty.

"The boyfriend (William Haverty) gave this office several different (date of births) for Mrs. Cox," wrote Flinn. "William did not appear upset, but tried to act important by demanding we check our tow log, the hospital, FHP."

Haverty also gave specific instructions about contacting the Brooksville Police Department. The city limits were less than 20 miles from where Cox's body would subsequently be found.

"(He) said don't bother with the city (police) because she would not be in their area," wrote Flinn.

McClain emphasized the significance of the report in a motion he filed in 1992.

"Once again, it appears that it shows that Mr. Haverty had information that he should not have had if he was not somehow involved in the killing," he wrote.

Flinn said Haverty's suspicious statements were made worse by his strange demeanor.

"When this officer advised that (Mrs. Cox) had not been to any hospital in our area and that her car had not been towed, William stated, 'Well, that's all they can do. Let's go,'" according to Flinn's report.

Lewan said he never knew about Flinn's meeting with Haverty.

Flinn testified during the trial, but only sat on the stand for a couple minutes. Lewan didn't cross examine him.

Flinn testified during the 1992 hearing he contacted his supervisor based on his presumptions about Haverty.

Additionally, Thomas Blackman, who supervised the detectives in the criminal investigations division, said when he questioned Haverty after the killing he appeared "somewhat nervous."

"His story almost (seemed) rehearsed," said Blackman, according to court documents.

Prior to the 1985 trial, Lewan had taken part in an aggravated battery trial, defended a couple of DUI suspects and handled a few more below-the-radar cases. He was a few years removed from law school.

He took over after then-public defender Jack Springstead passed on the case because of his immense workload. Others passed on it because they had former clients who later wound up on the state's witness list.

Lewan, who now is a public defender in Citrus County, did not return a message last week.

"I don't think that would happen now," said McClain of an inexperienced attorney taking over a capital murder case with so little time to prepare.

He also said Lewan was "probably overwhelmed" going up against Hogan.

"Hogan's history and pattern as a prosecutor is that he's going to win," said McLain, who acknowledged there has been acrimony between them. "He had an ends-justify-the-means approach to his job."

McClain described Lewan as "unprepared, cold and inexperienced" when he worked the trial.

He said it was another example of why he thinks there have been several "serious, systematic problems" with the way death penalty cases are handled in Florida.

Editors note: This is part one of a two-part series on the death penalty case against Paul Hildwin. Part two will be published in Wednesday's edition of . Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or

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