Yesterday, April 3, 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, emerged from a Jefferson County Jail (AL) after serving thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit. Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, author of the national bestseller “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption,” had represented Hinton for the past 16 years.
One could make a strong argument that Hinton should never have been indicted for two 1985 murders at Alabama fast-food restaurants. The evidence presented against Hinton, who had no history of violent crime and who always proclaimed his innocence, was scanty. Perhaps even worse, when authorities — prosecutors and judges — were presented new evidence of his innocence, they refused to acknowledge the importance of the new evidence or grant testing, either of which could have accelerated Hinton’s release by more than a decade.
Hinton was indicted and convicted on the theory that a gun stolen from his mother’s home was used in the murders. It didn’t matter that he passed a polygraph test administered by the police because the judge at his trial refused to admit it.
It didn’t matter that he had a strong alibi for one of the nights of one of the crimes. His supervisor and co-workers attested to the fact that he was at work some fifteen miles from the crime scene.
Hinton’s lawyer lacked the knowledge required in a capital case. He hired a visually impaired expert with little experience in ballistics analysis. The so-called expert was ill equipped to respond to the prosecutor’s cross-examination.
According to the EJI report (here), the EJI called upon three of the nation’s top firearms examiners “who found in 1999 and testified in 2002 that the revolver could not be matched to crime scene evidence.” But for more than fifteen years former Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber and Attorneys Generals in office in that span refused to do additional testing.
The U.S. Supreme Court provided breakthrough last year when it reversed lower court rulings and granted Hinton a new trial. The high court ruled that Hinton’s trial counsel was “constitutionally deficient,” in his failure to request funding for a sufficient ballistics expert. Mark Godsey noted the ruling on this blog (here).
Last Wednesday the Jefferson County District Attorney declined to retry Hinton after the prosecutors’ experts also were unable to match crime scene bullets to the gun alleged to be from Hinton’s mother’s home or even to confirm that the bullets from the crime scenes had come from one gun. The Jefferson County, Alabama Circuit Court dismissed all charges against Mr. Hinton and he was released yesterday to his awaiting family.
Stevenson noted, “Prosecutors should have done this testing years ago.”
In the EJI report on the case, Bryan Stevenson said, “He was convicted because he’s poor. We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, and his case proves it…We’ve gotten into a culture where the pressure to convict and to achieve these outcomes is so great that owning up to mistakes is less frequent than you’d like to imagine.”
Mr. Hinton added, “All they had to do was to test the gun…The State of Alabama let me down tremendously. I have no respect for the prosecutors, the judges. And I say that not with malice in my heart. I say it because they took 30 years from me.”
The Washington Post’s detailed report on the case can be accessed (here).