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Florida Supreme Court tosses death row conviction on DNA evidence

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - Florida's Supreme Court threw out the death sentence of a man who spent almost 30 years in jail for the 1985 rape and murder of a woman found in a car trunk in the woods after new DNA evidence cast doubt on his guilt.

Convicted for killing Vronzettie Cox from forensic evidence found at the time, Paul Hildwin was on Death Row for nearly three decades. But new DNA tests proved the semen found on her underwear at the crime scene did not belong to him, the court said.

"This is huge," said Martin McClain, his longtime attorney. "Of course, for Mr. Hildwin, there is nothing that can give him back those 30 years."

McClain said he had not been able to tell Hildwin about the decision, but was scheduled to speak with him on Friday. Hildwin was also represented by attorneys from the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongly convicted people.

Although DNA testing proved in 2003 that Hildwin's semen was not at the scene, McClain said he had to fight for years to get Florida officials to run the crime scene evidence through a national DNA database that ultimately matched it to the victim's boyfriend.

Hildwin had told investigators that he had hitched a ride with the pair several days before the body was found, but said he left them by the roadside after the two got into an argument. Hildwin said the boyfriend should have been the suspect.

"When you discover you made a mistake, you don't want to sweep it under the rug, you want to acknowledge it and fix it," McClain said.

The court has ordered his case sent back for a new trial. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is reviewing the Hildwin ruling, a spokeswoman said.

This is the second Death Row case recently overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the court found there was insufficient DNA evidence in the murder conviction of Carl Dausch, who has been on death row since 2012.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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