Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Breaking News: Chad Heins Freed in Florida (12/4/07)

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Innocence Blog: Breaking News: Chad Heins Freed in Florida (12/04/07)

Innocence Blog: More proof of innocence in Florida case (11/20/07)

Prosecutor Dismisses Case Against Chad Heins Based on DNA Evidence, Exonerating Him in 1994 Florida Murder

Conviction was vacated in 2006, but Heins has been in jail pending retrial; DNA test results on multiple pieces of evidence confirm his innocence

(JACKSONVILLE, FL; December 4, 2007) – Chad Heins, who was convicted in 1996 of the 1994 murder of his sister-in-law despite a lack of evidence against him, was exonerated today when the Florida State Attorney in Jacksonville dismissed all charges against him. The Innocence Project, which represents Heins, said he is the 209th person nationwide exonerated through DNA testing (and the ninth in Florida).

Heins’ murder conviction was thrown out in December 2006 based on DNA test results on multiple hairs from the crime scene and tissue under the victim’s fingernails. Last month, new DNA tests on semen from the victim’s bed also excluded Heins. All of the DNA results – from the hair, victim’s fingernails and bed – match the same, unknown male. Also, a fingerprint from someone other than Chad Heins, the victim or the victim’s husband was discovered on the faucet of the blood-stained sink in the Heins’ bathroom, where it was undisputed that the perpetrator attempted to clean up after the murder.

"The overwhelming evidence shows that Chad Heins is innocent. His unimaginable 14-year nightmare has finally come to an end. His name is clear, and he is a free man," said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

In dismissing the indictment against Heins today, State Attorney Harry Shorstein said his office will continue to investigate the case and is not yet conceding that Heins is, in fact, innocent.

“We respect the fact that the local prosecutor is still investigating the case, and we hope authorities will identify and apprehend the person who committed this crime. Harry Shorstein and the talented, dedicated staff in his office have shown tremendous integrity and fairness throughout this process. They have conducted a very comprehensive investigation, leaving no stone unturned. Their commitment to uncovering the truth in this case has been exemplary, and they have been professional and thorough at every step,” Scheck said.

When a conviction is vacated -- and an indictment is subsequently dismissed -- based on DNA evidence of innocence, the defendant is fully exonerated, according to the Innocence Project. Scheck said that prosecutors sometimes stop short of conceding a defendant’s innocence at the time of exoneration, but later acknowledge that the exonerated person is innocent (either because the real perpetrator is eventually identified or simply with the passage of time). “Between the DNA profile on several pieces of evidence and the fingerprint at the crime scene, we believe the true perpetrator will eventually be identified,” Scheck said.

Heins’ conviction stemmed from the murder of Tina Heins in the early-morning hours of April 17, 1994. She was killed in the Mayport, Florida, apartment she shared with her husband (Jeremy), and his brother (Chad). Jeremy, who was in the Navy, was on board his ship that night. Nineteen-year-old Chad, who had recently moved to Jacksonville and was waiting for his fiancĂ©e in Wisconsin to join him, slept on the living room sofa. Chad Heins had returned home at 12:30 a.m. that night, two hours before his sister-in-law, and was asleep during the crime. He woke up around 5:45 a.m. to find three small fires burning in the living room and kitchen, one on the very sofa where he slept. After putting out the fires and disarming the smoke alarm, he discovered Tina Heins in her bedroom; she had been stabbed 27 times.

Besides his presence in the apartment, there was no evidence implicating Chad Heins in the murder—no blood on his clothes or under his fingernails, no scratches or scrapes on his body, and no murder weapon found. There was, however, strong evidence that Chad had a sleep disorder and was very difficult to rouse, especially after he had been drinking, as he had been on the night of the crime. Based on the theory that Chad had killed Tina in a jealous rage and the testimony of two jailhouse snitches, Heins was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery on December 20, 1996, and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2001, Heins wrote to the Innocence Project, which took the case with help from the Innocence Project of Florida. In 2003, with pro bono counsel Robert Beckham of Holland & Knight, the Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing on Tina’s fingernail scrapings. The DNA test results showed that male DNA under Tina’s fingernails did not come from Chad or Jeremy Heins. Heins’ attorneys then asked the state to conduct further testing, to compare the unknown male DNA found from the fingernail scrapings to three hairs found on Tina’s body. The hairs had been tested for DNA in 1996 in the original investigation and were also proven not to belong to Chad or Jeremy. Additional testing in 2005 showed that the profile from the hairs was consistent with the DNA from the fingernails—all belonging to a single, unknown male. Heins’ conviction was vacated, but prosecutors prepared to retry him. DNA test results last month on semen from Tina Heins’ bed matched the same DNA profile as the other evidence. It is clear that the still-unidentified male whose DNA profile was discovered on several pieces of evidence, and who may also have left the fingerprint, is the real perpetrator.

Scheck and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison have handled Heins’ case for the last several years, with pro bono counsel Robert Beckham of Holland & Knight LLP and consultation and assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida. Robert Link, of Pajcic and Pajcic in Jacksonville, has served as pro bono co-counsel in the retrial preparations and negotiations.

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