By: Jessica Williams
“It’s just the simplest things,”he quietly said as he looked down at the grass between his bare feet. Grass. Something he could only dream about. Until now.
For over 30 years, Paul Hildwin was in prison for the 1985 murder of Vronzetti Cox of Brooksville, Fla. On Monday, March 9, 2020, Mr. Hildwin was a man of few words. Those that stood around him were also speechless, struggling to know what to say to him. They knew he had been through a “living hell,” which is the meaning of his backside tattoo he received in prison. The detailed artistic tattoo has several screaming demons and a sword piercing through thick skin. The artist appears to have depicted images of pain, agony, fear, and anger.
About a year ago, The Hernando Sun first discovered Paul Hildwin from his story, published by The Innocence Project.
At that time, Hernando County courts were preparing for a new murder trial against him. Prosecutors were gearing up to convict Mr. Hildwin of the murder of Vronzetti Cox, for a 3rd time. The case had been open for over 3 decades. Mr. Hildwin had been issued two murder convictions for the woman’s violent death since 1985.
The new trial date had been postponed many times and finally set for Monday, March 9th, 2020.
Prior to the March 2020 trial date, Mr. Hildwin was first convicted of the woman’s murder, and sentenced to death in 1986. Then (in 1996) he was re-sentenced, and sent back to Death Row for the same murder. According to deathpenaltyinfo.org: “At that time, he was convicted on testimony from an FBI forensics expert who claimed that semen and saliva from the crime scene had come from Mr. Hildwin.”
It wasn’t until modern DNA testing played a major role in his conviction being thrown out, as The Innocence Project had adopted his case and fought relentlessly for justice in his Supreme Court case. That fight lasted from 2003 (when DNA tests excluded Mr. Hildwin) to 2010 (when the Florida Supreme Court finally agreed to the DNA database search). The results not only proved Mr. Hildwin’s DNA was not at the crime scene, but that the DNA belonged to a criminal, already in the criminal justice database. That criminal was identified as the murder victim’s former boyfriend. It took 7 years to prove it, though.
That wasn’t the end.
In 2014, the murder conviction and death sentence was overturned (Mr. Hildwin left death row, for a second time), but he was transported to the Hernando County jail. For the past 6 years, prosecutors have fought very hard to keep him there. The State of Florida decided to pursue a third murder trial against him.
That final conviction didn’t happen. Nor did a third murder trial take place.
Unexpectedly, on the scheduled trial date, Paul Hildwin walked out of The Hernando County jail a free man.
During his imprisonment, Mr. Hildwin fought and beat aggressive cancers, multiple times. But one thing is certain, Mr. Hildwin (and his team of lawyers and supporters) never gave up.
The world he knew in 1985 (at the age of 25) is very different from the world he walked into earlier this month in 2020 (at the age of 60). This is why The Innocence Project emphasizes the importance of a transition period for exonerees and the wrongfully convicted. They have to learn how to live again, and to live in a completely different world than they left many years ago. They also have to figure out how to support themselves financially, obtain medical and psychological care, determine means of transportation, and learn skills/education in order to obtain stable employment. Mr. Hildwin has now entered this chapter of his life.
The Final Court Hearing
So, why did the murder case end so abruptly?
Surprisingly, the prosecution offered an unexpected plea deal to Mr. Hildwin. Which had not happened in the past 6 years, since he’s been incarcerated at the Hernando County jail. It was Mr. Hildwin’s decision whether to accept the plea deal or not.
If he didn’t accept the plea deal, then he would move forward with a third murder trial and risk receiving the death penalty for a third time. Even though DNA testing had concluded that the first two murder convictions were based on false evidence.
He decided to take the plea deal.
The Murder Case of Vronzetti Cox
On September 9, 1985, 42-year old Vronzetti Cox was strangled to death with a t-shirt. Her body was discovered in the trunk of her car in a deserted, wooded area of Hernando County.
Earlier that day, she had stopped to give 25 year old Paul Hildwin a ride as his car had run out of gas. After gathering evidence, officials arrested (and convicted) Mr. Hildwin of her murder, sentencing him to death.
However, Supreme Court documents later revealed that Vronzetti and her boyfriend, William Haverty, had a history of domestic disputes.
In his 1985 statements to officials, Paul Hildwin said the couple were fighting aggressively in the front seat as he was riding in the victim’s car, stating he “attempted unsuccessfully to separate Haverty and the victim during an argument that became violent involving Haverty striking and choking the victim.” (Supreme Court Florida Caselaw No. Sco4-265, Dec. 2006).
As previously mentioned, it took 7 years to show that the DNA found at the crime scene and on the victim’s underwear belonged to William Haverty, not Paul Hildwin.
And it wasn’t until 2014, that Mr. Hildwin’s conviction was thrown out and he was released from death row. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 2020, that he was released from incarceration.
Mr. Hildwin had been behind bars for 35 years, charged with first degree murder, with 28 of those years on death row.
Last year, on May 3, 2019, The Hernando Sun published its first detailed article about the murder case, and the inconsistencies between Mr. Hildwin and Mr. Haverty’s accounts of what had occurred the day of the murder. At that time, a PreTrial hearing was held on May 6, 2019.
On May 10, 2019, The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office issued a media release of an absconded sexual predator: 55-year old, William Haverty. He fled from his home located at 11811 Broad St., Brooksville after learning of pending charges.
Mr. Haverty had previously faced 4 counts of sexual battery of a Spring Hill girl (younger than 12 years old) and 4 counts of lewd and lascivious assault. Mr. Haverty was arrested for repeatedly molesting the young victim from 1988 to June 1997.
A recent inmate search of the Hernando County jail resulted in the following findings: William Haverty was arrested on May 20, 2019 for violation of probation, failing to re-register as a sexual predator, and tampering with a monitoring device. There is no bond posted at this time.