December 5, 2007
After 13 years in prison, Chad Heins is a free man
|By Paul Pinkham,
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
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
"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, 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'
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
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
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.