The Times-Union

December 15, 2006

Judge tosses Heins guilty verdict

The Times-Union, (904) 359-4247

In light of DNA evidence, a Duval County judge has thrown out the guilty verdict against Chad Heins, who was convicted 10 years ago for the 1994 murder of his 20-year-old pregnant sister-in-law in Mayport.

 Heins, 32, who has been serving a life sentence, could be tried again or set free, possibly as early as Jan. 1, attorneys said.

"It's the best news we could ever expect for Christmas," said Roger Heins, Chad Heins' father in Nekoosa, Wis.

The decision is based on DNA test results released in 2004 that show that pubic hairs found on the victim, Tina Heins, did not belong to Chad Heins.

On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Lawrence Haddock granted a motion for "post conviction relief" and scheduled a pretrial hearing for Tuesday.

Florida law states that defendants are entitled to a new trial if there is new evidence, such as DNA, which would not have been available because of technology at the time of the trial.

 State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who previously said the DNA evidence was not sufficient to overturn the verdict, said Thursday he has not decided whether to retry Heins.

"I intend to review the judge's order and will make a decision in the coming weeks," Shorstein said.

Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project, the New York-based legal group that took Heins' case, met with Shorstein Thursday. Scheck said Shorstein is a "thoughtful, responsible prosecutor" and he's "hopeful" that Heins can be set free.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group, uses DNA evidence to exonerate prisoners nationwide.

Heins could also plead guilty to a lesser charge and be sentenced again, but Scheck said that's not likely.

Scheck, who was part of the "Dream Team" in the O.J. Simpson trial, said he thinks the DNA evidence is strong enough to dismiss Heins' case, possibly as early as the New Year.

Nina Morrison, staff attorney for the Innocence Project, said she believes even if Heins were convicted again, a judge would set the verdict aside because of "the strength of the DNA evidence."

"This is a great day," Scheck said. "We spent hundreds of hours and lots of money on this case. It's taken a long time, but this is the news we've been waiting for."

Heins said he was passed out in the living room following a night of drinking when Tina Heins, who was married to his brother, was killed in the bedroom of their Mayport apartment. Jeremy Heins, then 21, was working on a Navy ship at the time of the murder. Chad Heins said he awoke to find three fires set in the apartment and Tina Heins stabbed 27 times in her bed.

Prosecutors said Heins was the only one in the apartment when Tina Heins was killed and sexual assaulted.

In 2003, Heins contacted the Innocence Project to help exonerate him.

DNA test found that two pubic hairs and one body hair found on Tina Heins did not come from Jeremy or Chad Heins. Male DNA found under her fingernails also did not match either brother.

Based on the DNA evidence, the Innocence Project and the Holland & Knight law firm filed a motion to vacate Heins' sentence.

The father of the Heins brothers said the case has caused immense pain for the entire family.

Jeremy Heins has said he believes his brother killed his wife and was worried that people thought he killed her.

Roger Heins, who maintains Chad's innocence, said he ran into Jeremy at a Wal-Mart recently and told him they needed to have a long talk, that Jeremy should come over whenever he felt ready.

"I just hope when Chad gets out they can be brothers again," he said.

Jeremy Heins did not return phone calls from the Times-Union.

Tina Heins' parents, Bill and Sue Livernash of Junction City, Wis., said they did not wish to comment on the case.

For the past decade, Roger Heins said he has remained patient with the legal system, still optimistic that "everything was going to work out."

"Everything takes time," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. I just say a little prayer every night. That's all you can do."

Chad Heins
Chad Heins

Heins timeline

April 17, 1994: Tina Heins, a 20-year-old pregnant woman, is stabbed to death in the Mayport apartment she shared with her 21-year-old husband, Jeremy Heins, and his 19-year-old brother, Chad Heins.

April 20, 1994: Chad Heins is charged with first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery. He maintains his innocence.

Dec. 20, 1996: After hours of deliberation, the jury finds Chad Heins guilty on both counts.

Dec. 27, 1996: Though the State Attorney's Office sought the death penalty, the jury recommends a life sentence and the judge follows their recommendation.

February 5, 1997: Chad Heins appeals the verdict, and his appeal is denied a year later.

Sept. 17, 2001: Chad Heins writes to New York-based nonprofit Innocence Project, which agrees to review his case for free.

Dec. 1, 2003: Despite prosecutors' objections, a judge grants Chad Heins' motion to retest DNA evidence that might create "a reasonable probability that" he "would have been acquitted."

June 25, 2004: The first round of tests reveals DNA found under Tina Heins' fingernails couldn't possibly have come from Chad Heins, and that it came from another, unknown man. The second round of testing concludes that the DNA under Tina Heins' fingernails didn't come from her husband, Jeremy Heins, either.

Aug. 12, 2005: A final round of testing reveals that the DNA under Tina Heins' fingernails is "consistent in all respects" with DNA attached to pubic hairs from an unknown man that were found on her corpse. State Attorney Harry Shorstein decides the new DNA evidence isn't compelling enough to drop the charges against Chad Heins or entitle him to a new trial. He leaves it to a judge to decide.

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