Florida death-row inmate walks free after 35 years behind bars for murder he did not commit

Florida death-row inmate walks free after 35 years behind bars for murder he did not commit
Paul Hildwin (Florida DOC)

TAMPA BAY, FLORIDA: Paul Hildwin didn't think he would ever walk on grass again — or see the day he would finally stop calling the jail his home. Now that Hildwin is set free after spending 29 years on death row, he will surely appreciate all the little joys of life and more.

Hildwin was convicted for the murder of one Vronzettie Cox and was sentenced to death in 1985. Ten years later, he got a resentencing, to death again. In 2014, new DNA evidence got him another trial, and on the day of the trial, the cancer survivor accepted a deal. He pleaded no-contest to second-degree murder in exchange for a suspended life sentence and eternal probation. A few hours later, he walked out.

Cox had been found stuffed inside the trunk of a car, naked and beaten and investigators also believed she had been raped. Their focus shifted on Hildwin after they found out he had some of her stuff in his possession — stuff he had stolen from her.  He had explained to the police that Cox and her boyfriend had given Hildwin a ride a couple of days before she died and that he had stolen the goods while the couple was fighting. He had her pearl ring and her radio and had cashed a check from her checkbook for $75 at a nearby bank.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Cox had been strangled by a T-shirt. 

Hildwin denied assaulting or murdering Cox but the cops looked no further — even though she and her boyfriend clearly had problems. Hildwin was charged with Cox's murder and the prosecution's expert claimed that the fluids found on the crime scene matched those of Hildwin. He also did not have the best defense. His court-appointed lawyer, Daniel Lewan, had never tried a murder case.

However, DNA testing thanks to the push from the Innocent Project proved that the fluids belonged to her boyfriend William Haverty all along. He spent 20 years in prison for an unrelated child sex abuse conviction.

Hildwin spent about 35 years behind bars for the crime and was sentenced to be executed thrice. He was also diagnosed with cancer four times and still made it through. The case was sent to the Florida Supreme Court in 2014 by Fort Lauderdale attorney Martin McClain and the Innocence Project and his death sentence was reversed after the DNA matched the boyfriend. However, prosecutors from the Fifth Judicial Circuit wanted to retry Hildwin and ask for the death penalty. 

His plea deal was negotiated by criminal defense attorney Lyann Goudie. Goudie worked on the case tirelessly, says the Innocence Project, and she argued that it would be impossible to have a fair trial with at least twelve witnesses crucial to the case already dead. With many complications in the case, the best way out legally was the plea deal. Since he had already served time, he could just go home if he took it.

Hildwin is now 60 years old.

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