After Nearly 30 Years on Death Row, Florida Man’s Death Sentence Overturned Through DNA Evidence


Questions about the reliability of the death penalty were once again raised on June 26, when the Florida Supreme Court overturned Paul Hildwin’s death sentence and conviction after DNA testing of evidence found at the scene matched it to the victim’s boyfriend.

Paul Hildwin was arrested in 1985 for the rape and murder of a woman in Hernando County, Florida, after cashing one of her checks. He told police he had hitched a ride with the woman and her boyfriend several days earlier and admitted that he stole her checkbook from the car. Mr. Hildwin got out of the car after the couple began arguing violently.

At trial, the prosecution presented an FBI serology expert who wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found on crime scene evidence matched Mr. Hildwin. The defense argued that the boyfriend must have committed the crime. Mr. Hildwin was convicted and sentenced to death.

In 2003, DNA testing excluded Mr. Hildwin as the source of the biological evidence, but the state refused to compare the DNA profile with its database until the Florida Supreme Court ordered it to do so in 2010. It matched the victim’s boyfriend.

“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,” the court wrote in its decision ordering a new trial for Mr. Hildwin.

Unreliable or improper forensics contributed to nearly half of the 316 DNA exonerations nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, which conducted the testing in Mr. Hildwin’s case.

This is the fourth time in just over a year that the Florida Supreme Court has reversed a death sentence based on new evidence of innocence. Florida leads the nation in the number of people on death row who have been exonerated. Yet last year, the state enacted a new law that orders the governor to sign death warrants for inmates within thirty days of their initial appeals. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the law last month.

Mr. Hildwin narrowly avoided being executed in 1990, and his case shows that there is a real danger that Florida’s new law could result in the execution of innocent people, said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “Regardless of how you feel about whether the death penalty is morally appropriate, we should not be rushing to put people to death without due process of law.”