After almost 30 years, Alabama death row prisoner Anthony Ray Hinton was freed on April 3, 2015 – at the age of 58 – when prosecutors dropped the charges against him.
At the time of his release, Hinton, who is black, told The Marshall Project that he believed racist officials, including prosecutors and police officers, had “lied on me and convicted me of a horrible crime for something I didn’t do.”
“They stole my 30s, they stole my 40s, they stole my 50s. I could not afford to give them my soul. I couldn’t give them me. I had to hold onto that, and the only thing that kept me from losing my mind was my sense of humor,” he added.
Hinton was convicted of committing murders during two fast food restaurant robberies. In both cases the victims were forced into the restaurants’ coolers and shot twice in the head. The first robbery occurred on February 25, 1985, the second on July 2, 1985.
Pressure mounted on law enforcement to solve the crimes. A manager at another restaurant was robbed and shot on July 25, 1985; he survived and police targeted Hinton after the manager identified him in a line-up.
Hinton passed a polygraph test but it was ruled inadmissible at trial. He also had a “powerful alibi” for the last robbery: co-workers confirmed that he was working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away at the time of the crime.
Police, however, recovered a pistol belonging to Hinton’s mother from her house. State experts testified that bullets recovered from the crime scenes and victims had been fired from the gun. The prosecutor – who had a documented history of racial bias and said he could tell Hinton was “evil” from his appearance – confirmed the bullets were the only credible evidence linking Hinton to the robberies.
Hinton’s court-appointed attorney attempted to attack that evidence, but he mistakenly thought he had only $1,000 to procure an expert. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February 2014 that “Hinton’s attorney knew that he needed more funding to present an effective defense, yet he failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding for indigent defendants that would have revealed to him that he could receive reimbursement not just for $1,000 but for ‘any expenses reasonably incurred.’” See: Hinton v. Alabama, 134 S.Ct. 1081 (2014).
Rather than perform that cursory research, Hinton’s defense counsel hired the only expert willing to review the bullets for $1,000. That expert was a visually-impaired civil engineer with no expertise in firearms identification, who was discredited at trial when he admitted he could not operate the machinery necessary to examine the evidence.
Due to incompetent representation and prosecutorial bias, Hinton was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court found his counsel was ineffective and he was granted a new trial on remand.
The fight to gain Hinton’s freedom was won through the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which took over this case in 1998. They obtained three experts to independently review the gun and bullets.
As stated in EJI’s motion to dismiss the charges, all three experts were unable to “conclusively determine that any of the six bullets were or were not fired through the same firearm or that they were fired through the firearm recovered from [the home of Hinton’s mother].” The charges were finally dropped after prosecutors acknowledged they could not match the crime scene bullets to the gun.
“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,” said EJI executive director, founder and lead counsel Bryan Stevenson. “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. Prosecutors should have done this testing years ago.”
Hinton questioned why it took so long to exonerate him.
“All they had to do was to test the gun, but when you think you’re high and mighty and you’re above the law, you don’t have to answer to nobody,” he said. “But I’ve got news for you – everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”
Stevenson said Hinton’s case highlighted the need for criminal justice reform.
“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” he stated. “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”
On April 5, 2015, an online fundraising campaign was set up on behalf of Hinton, to raise $100,000 to aid him in his return to the community after spending nearly three decades on death row. As of October 31, 2016 the campaign had raised $17,085.
Sources: Associated Press, CNN, www.al.com, www.eji.org, www.theatlantic.com
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Related legal case
Hinton v. Alabama
|Cite||134 S.Ct. 1081 (2014)|