The Times-Union

December 5, 2007

After 13 years in prison, Chad Heins is a free man

By Paul Pinkham,
The Times-Union

Chad Heins grinned victoriously as he emerged from the Duval County jail Tuesday afternoon, hugged his lawyers one by one, then stepped outside as a free man for the first time in 13 years.

"I made it. Finally. Forever, but finally," the 33-year-old said before facing a throng of TV cameras camped outside.

Two hours earlier, prosecutors announced they were dropping first-degree murder and attempted rape charges against Heins in the brutal 1994 stabbing death of his sister-in-law in Mayport. State Attorney Harry Shorstein said the agreement hinged on Heins waiving his speedy trial rights, allowing prosecutors to re-open the case if new evidence comes to light.

The decision essentially ends a 13-year legal battle that began when Heins was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he always insisted he didn't commit.

The turning point came in 2001 when Heins contacted the New York-based Innocence Project, which convinced a judge to re-open DNA testing. Ultimately, those tests revealed another man's DNA on Tina Heins' bed and on her body, and a new trial was ordered last year.

"He has never wavered from day one," said Jennifer Greenberg of the Innocence Project of Florida. "The primary thing that helped Chad survive his wrongful incarceration was his dignity in knowing that he would one day be vindicated."

Heins was 19 in April 1994 when his sister-in-law was stabbed 27 times while her husband, Jeremy Heins, was stationed on a Navy ship. Chad Heins has maintained he was passed out on the couch when the slaying occurred and three fires were set in the apartment.
The world has changed dramatically since then. Heins said he's never seen a cell phone or been on the Internet, and he admitted some fear about the adjustment.

"It's gonna be hard," Heins said. "I pretty much grew up in prison."

He plans to return home to Wisconsin and his two children today, a trip delayed by a day because his lawyers realized he didn't have any identification to board a plane. The kids were a year old and a month old when Heins was arrested.

His stepmother, Mary Heins, said she was both excited about him coming home and nervous about the adjustments he faces. She said he'll stay with her and his father and has asked to see just a few relatives at a time.

"It'll be exciting to see all the changes through his eyes," she said. "I'm happy just to have him home. What a perfect Christmas. It's going to be the best Christmas ever."

About the only thing that hasn't changed since Heins went to prison is that Brett Favre remains the star quarterback of his beloved Green Bay Packers. Heins asked his lawyers to bring him a Packers sweatshirt to wear as he left the jail.

Despite a "rough, scary 13 years," Heins said the justice system worked in the end for him, thanks to the Innocence Project. He and his lawyers said they hope the same DNA that led to his release can be used to bring Tina Heins' real killer to justice.

"We have the DNA of who did it," said Robert Link, a Jacksonville attorney who represented Heins for free. "If they had had this evidence back then, I doubt he would have been prosecuted."

Link and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck praised Shorstein for undertaking a thorough review of the evidence, even though the state attorney stopped short of exonerating Heins. Last month, a test requested by the State Attorney's Office matched the DNA on Tina Heins' bed to hair found on her body and scrapings from her fingernails. That DNA did not come from either Heins brother.

"Each new bit of scientific evidence came out in favor of Chad," Scheck said. "The overwhelming evidence shows that Chad Heins is innocent."

Chad Heins
Chad Heins, a free man after 13 years

The Heins Case
April 1994: Tina Heins is raped and stabbed 27 times in her Mayport apartment while her husband is stationed on a Navy ship. Police charge her brother-in-law, Chad Heins, with murder and rape. He said he was passed out drunk on a nearby couch during the slaying.

January 1997: Chad Heins is sentenced to life in prison after jury convicts him of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery.

2001: Heins contacts the Innocence Project, co-founded by attorney Barry Scheck, in New York to investigate cases where DNA could exonerate people wrongfully convicted.

2003: Circuit Judge Charles Arnold grants Innocence Project motion to allow retesting of DNA in Heins' case.

Dec. 23, 2006: Circuit Judge L. Page Haddock dismisses Heins' conviction and sentence on the basis of DNA evidence from Tina Heins' body that suggested a man other than the Heins brothers was in the apartment. Prosecutors appeal Haddock's order.

July 16, 2007: State Attorney Harry Shorstein drops the appeal and announces plans to retry Heins for first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery. The trial is scheduled Dec. 3.

Nov. 19, 2007: Haddock postpones the trial indefinitely. Heins' lawyers say state DNA tests bolster the theory that an unidentified man, not Heins, committed the murder. The tests link a semen stain on Tina Heins' bed to the evidence from her body.

Dec. 4, 2007: Heins is released from jail after Shorstein drops murder and attempted sexual battery charges against him. The dismissal is conditioned on Heins waiving his speedy trial rights, meaning prosecutors could re-open the case if new evidence is found.

But Shorstein didn't concede that and said the investigation would continue into who killed Tina Heins. No potential suspect, including Chad Heins, would be excluded from that investigation, Shorstein said.

Tina Heins's parents didn't return phone calls, and Jeremy Heins couldn't be reached Tuesday., (904) 359-4107

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