Anthony Ray Hinton, an unassuming man, quiet, somewhat downtrodden. A man who has spent half his life on Alabama’s death row. A man sentenced to die for a double homicide that for decades he insisted he did not commit.
Over the almost 3 decades, the world outside of that Alabama prison has changed a lot. Hinton has spent 28 years staring at the same 5ft by 8ft prison cell. Children grew to be adults. His mother died. His hair turned decayed and turned the same grey as his walls. Men who he knew were escorted to their deaths by the electric chair or strapped to the lethal-injection gurney.
He was set free on Friday.
New ballistics tests contradicted the only evidence laid against him, an analysis of crime-scene bullets. That analysis was the only thing that connected Hinton to the murders.
As he left the jail he had been held, Hinton said he would pray for the victims’ families, as he has done for the past 30 years. A “miscarriage of justice” was levelled at them as well, said Hinton. He was far less lenient towards those involved in his conviction.
“When you think you are high and mighty and you are above the law, you don’t have to answer to nobody. But I got news for them, everybody who played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God,” said Hinton with more than a little vitriol.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1973, the sixth in Alabama alone. If that alone isn’t an indictment of the how the death penalty is dealt with in America then I don’t know what is.
Hinton said outside the Jefferson County jail in Birmingham, Albama, “They had every intention of executing me for something I didn’t do.”
Friends and family members rushed to embrace Hinton after his lawyers escorted him outside of the jail on Good Friday. His sisters wiped tears, saying “Thank you, Lord,” as they wrapped their arms around their long separated brother.
The director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, who fought against this for 16 years arguing for Hinton’s release, said while the day was joyous, the case remained tragic.
“Not only did he lose his life, he lived a life in solitary confinement on death row, condemned in a five-by-eight cell where the state was trying to kill him every day,” Stevenson said.
Hinton was convicted of killing two fast-food restaurant workers, John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason, during separate 1985 robberies at Mrs Winner’s and Captain D’s restaurants in Birmingham. Investigators became interested in him after a survivor at a third restaurant robbery picked Hinton out of a photo lineup, a flimsy reason at best.
The only evidence linking him to the slayings was once again minimal, the bullets used in the murders state experts said had markings that matched a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Hinton’s mother. There were no fingerprints or eyewitness testimony linking Hinton in even the barest of ways to the crime scenes.
Stevenson said a defense analysis during appeal showed that bullets did not even match the gun in the first place. He then tried, in vain for many years, to persuade the state of Alabama to re-examine the evidence and reopen the case.
A break in the case came last year when Hinton won a new trial after the US Supreme Court ruled that Hinton’s trial counsel was “constitutionally deficient”. His defense lawyer wrongly thought he had only $1,000 to hire a ballistics expert to rebut the state’s case. The only expert willing to take the job for that kind of money was a one-eyed civil engineer, with little ballistics training who admitted he had trouble operating the microscope. He was utterly destroyed under cross-examination.
The Jefferson County district attorney’s office on Wednesday moved to drop the case after their forensics experts were unable to match crime-scene bullets to the gun.
Stevenson called Hinton’s conviction a “case study” in what is wrong with the American justice system.
“We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent and this case proves it. We have a system that is compromised by racial bias and this case proves it. We have a system that doesn’t do the right thing when the right thing is apparent,” Stevenson said. Stevenson went on to say that the, “Prosecutors should have done this testing years ago.”
Chief Deputy district attorney, John R Bowers Jr, said three experts with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences examined the bullets ahead of the anticipated retrial in the case.
Bowers said all three reached the same conclusion: they couldn’t conclusively determine whether or not any of those bullets were fired from the revolver taken from Hinton’s home. What’s more they could not even determine if the bullets had been fired from the same gun.
The first thing Hinton will do? Put flowers on his mother’s grave. After that comes the adjustment to the world, entirely different than the one he left over half his life ago.
His legal team said, “The world is a very different place than what it was 30 years ago. There was no Internet. There was no email. I gave him an iPhone this morning. He’s completely mystified by that.”
This case represents a truly terrifying possibility. In America if you don’t have enough money to hire a good legal team then you can, and will, go to jail. A man’s life has been destroyed because he couldn’t afford a good lawyer or a good ballistics expert. A man could have been killed for want of a few thousand dollars. Cases need to be reviewed better. People shouldn’t be put to death by the state unless there is absolute certainty in a case. Such a thing does not exist. Nobody should suffer like this. I hope nobody ever has to again. And yet there might already be someone suffering this fate. Please America fix this so there will never again be another Anthony Ray Hinton.