A man locked up since he was 19 years old on charges he raped and murdered his sister-in-law walked out of jail on Tuesday a free man.
One year ago, the conviction of Chad Heins in the 1994 rape and murder of Tina Heins was overturned based on new DNA evidence. Prosecutors kept him locked up for one more year while planning for a retrial.
At a brief hearing at 11 a.m. Tuesday, State Attorney Harry Shorstein told Circuit Judge Page Haddock that the state was dropping charges.
At 1:45 p.m., Heins smiled as he walked out of the Duval County jail, hugging his attorneys and others there to support him.
When asked what he was going to do first, Heins said: "I'm going to try and do everything to get out of the state of Florida."
Tina Heins was raped, then stabbed 27 times in the Mayport apartment she shared with Chad Heins and her husband, Jerry Heins. She was pregnant when she was killed.
Jerry Heins was aboard a Navy ship at the time of the killing. Police said Chad Heins was intoxicated and passed out on the couch when they arrived.
In December 1996, Chad Heins was sentenced to life in prison. Ten years later, Heins conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered after lawyers for the New York-based Innocence Project persuaded a judge to allow new DNA testing.
Last month, that trial was postponed indefinitely.
"It was a very, very difficult case. I know of no case in the entire life of my practice that was investigated as thoroughly and comprehensively by my office, defense attorneys," said State Attorney Harry Shorstein. "It ultimately led to the decision we made this morning."
Heins' conviction and life sentence were thrown out based on new DNA analysis of semen, fingernails and hair evidence suggested that there was someone else inside the apartment.
Until Tuesday, prosecutors insisted they planned to retry the case.
At the end of a hearing that lasted only a few minutes, Haddock ordered Heins released. Heins turned and smiled at the advocates who fought on his behalf.
"As an advocate for Mr. Heins, sure, I would have liked them to drop the charges a long time ago," defense attorney Robert Link said. "As a citizen in Duval County, the state attorney wanted to make darn good and sure that this person convicted of a horrible murder was, in fact, not responsible of that murder, so they tested virtually everything ... the evidence came up to be more compelling that someone other than Chad Heins had killed Tina Heins."
Heins praised his attorneys and said he survived prison, "One day at a time; watched my back."
The Innocence Project, which represented Heins, said he is the 209th person nationwide exonerated through DNA testing and the ninth in Florida.
According to Link, Jerry Heins, who now lives in Wisconsin, never believed his brother killed his wife and was pleased that the charges were dropped.
Wearing a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt as he left jail, Chad Heins, now 33, said he planned to rejoin his family in Wisconsin as quickly as possible.
"I pretty much grew up in prison," Heins said. "I just want to go home."
Shorstein said his office will continue to investigate the case. He did not rule out prosecuting Heins again if additional evidence indicated that he committed the crime.