After Almost 30 Years, DNA Shows State's Case "Has Collapsed"

On June 26, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin and ordered a new trial because new DNA evidence completely contradicted the state’s evidence presented at trial. Hildwin was convicted of a 1985 murder and sexual assault. At trial, an FBI forensics expert wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found at the crime scene matched Hildwin and could not have come from the victim’s boyfriend. However, more recent DNA testing excluded Hildwin and found that the fluids matched the boyfriend, who is incarcerated for the sexual assaults of two minors. In the decision overturning Hildwin’s conviction, the Court said, “We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense.” Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which was involved in Hildwin’s appeal, said, “As Mr. Hildwin’s thirty year quest to free his name so dramatically illustrates, there is a real danger that the recently enacted ‘timely justice act’ could result in the execution of innocent people.”

Marty McClain, an attorney for Mr. Hildwin, said, “The DNA evidence, [the boyfriend]’s criminal background and statements by witnesses who prove the crime couldn’t have occurred when originally thought, make it obviously clear that law enforcement went after the wrong person.” Hildwin had been in the car with the victim and her boyfriend shortly before the murder. Police determined he was in possession of items belonging to the victim.

(L. Alvarez, “Florida Court Overturns Death Sentence for 1985 Killing,” New York Times, June 26, 2014; Press Release, Innocence Project, June 26, 2014). Since 1973, 144 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. If Mr. Hildwin is acquitted at a retrial or charges against him dropped, he might be added to DPIC’s List of Exonerations. Florida has had the most exonerations of any state (24). See Innocence; listen to DPIC’s podcast on Innocence.