The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Hertz receipt was an imprisoned man’s murder alibi. The company took years to turn it over.

Herbert Alford, right, with his attorney Jamie White. (Courtesy of White Law PLLC)
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Trial was looming, the charge murder. Herbert Alford had one piece of evidence he knew could show he was innocent — if only he could get his hands on it.

The Lansing, Mich., man was accused of gunning down a 23-year-old in broad daylight, in what prosecutors portrayed as an execution-style shooting over stolen drugs. But Alford was eight miles away renting a car at the time of the killing, according to his defense team. A time-stamped receipt from Hertz would prove it, they said.

For three years, Alford’s attorneys pressed Hertz to turn over the document but were met with silence and later pushback from the company. In the meantime, Alford was tried, convicted and sentenced to 32 to 62 years in prison based largely on testimony from witnesses — one of whom claimed he was a paid informant for police and would go on to recant his allegations.

Only in 2018, after a flurry of legal filings, did Hertz finally unearth the receipt, paving the way for Alford’s release last year.

Now free, the 47-year-old is suing Hertz for failing to provide the document that cemented his alibi.

In a lawsuit filed in Ingham County court this week, Alford contended that the company ignored multiple subpoenas and court orders seeking the receipt and other records that would have absolved him. The suit accuses Hertz of civil contempt and negligence, alleging that Alford would have avoided years of prison time had the company responded sooner. He’s seeking monetary damages from the company and a jury trial.

“I always knew the receipt would do the trick, but whether we’d receive it was a huge question mark,” Alford’s attorney, Jamie White, said in an interview. “At the end of the day, Mr. Alford would really like to see Hertz held accountable. He really wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

A Hertz spokesperson acknowledged in a statement that it took years for the company to uncover the receipt.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of Mr. Alford’s experience,” the statement read. “While we were unable to find the historic rental record from 2011 when it was requested in 2015, we continued our good faith efforts to locate it. With advances in data search in the years following, we were able to locate the rental record in 2018 and promptly provided it.”

Alford’s case comes amid a wave of exonerations nationwide that peaked in 2016 and remains at near-record highs, according to data compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations, as prosecutors face pressure to reexamine evidence in questionable convictions. In Alford’s case, prosecutors haven’t definitively stated he was innocent but said last year that in light of the Hertz receipt they couldn’t prove his culpability beyond a reasonable doubt.

The document, barely half a page long, shows Alford swiped his credit card at a Hertz agency in Lansing’s regional airport at 3 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2011.

Six minutes earlier on the same day, Michael Adams was shot to death near a shopping center on the southwest side of the city. Alford and his attorneys say there is no way he could have made the eight-mile drive — typically 20 minutes or more in afternoon traffic — in such a short time.

Although Alford told police he was renting a car at the time of the killing, they pursued him as a suspect based largely on the testimony of an informant. The informant, Jessie Bridges, later recanted, saying police offered him $1,500 to implicate Alford, which authorities have denied.

In 2015, the case was revived when a man named Gilbert Bailey was arrested in a drug trafficking case and agreed to testify against Alford in exchange for lesser charges. Alford’s defense attorneys pushed for the Hertz receipt, but after the company failed to provide the document despite a subpoena, a court order and being held in contempt, the trial was held without it.

Prosecutors told jurors Alford chased down and executed Adams over 50 pounds of marijuana. There was no physical or forensic evidence, Alford’s attorneys say, and the case hinged entirely on witness testimony.

But jurors convicted Alford and the judge sentenced him to prison. His earliest possible release date was Oct. 20, 2047.

While incarcerated, Alford continued to be “adamant [about] wanting to get his hands on” the Hertz records, court papers say, and his attorneys continued pursuing them.

The lawsuit describes a years-long fight to track down the receipt and related materials, starting with a subpoena from his defense team shortly after his arrest in 2015. When the company failed to respond to that request, the attorneys sent another subpoena, followed by show-cause motions that Hertz ignored, according to the complaint.

“We got crickets. Nothing,” White said. “That happens from time to time with smaller businesses, but it was unusual for a corporation of this scale.”

In 2018, after Alford was convicted, a legal assistant from Hertz said the company couldn’t find the documents and that they were likely purged from its archives, according to the complaint. An attorney for Alford responded by demanding the assistant show up for a court hearing on a request for a new trial.

Days later, Hertz turned over the receipt, according to the complaint.

Based on the receipt, the judge vacated Alford’s conviction in August 2018 and ordered a new trial, writing in an order that he “was deprived of presenting an alibi defense.”

“The likelihood that a jury would acquit Defendant after being presented with the newly discovered evidence is great enough to warrant a new trial,” wrote the judge, Clinton Canady III.

Alford was released on bond in February 2020. In December, prosecutors dismissed the charges.

Hertz is tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, meaning Alford’s lawsuit against the company could move slowly for the time being. Court records show a bankruptcy stay was issued in the case this week.

Though he’s been out of prison for a year, Alford still bears some of the psychological scars of being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, White said.

“Thinking you’re never getting out is pretty emotionally devastating for most people. Being released was awesome, but people underestimate the gravity of laying in a bed in a six-by-nine cell and thinking you won’t get out for the rest of your life,” White said. “He’s working through that.”