Anthony Ray Hinton was one of Alabama’s longest-serving death row inmates, having spent more than half his life incarcerated. Now, after three decades of insisting that he was innocent in the 1985 murders of two men, the 58-year-old Hinton is finally a free man.
“The sun does shine,” Hinton said just after his release from jail on Friday, according to AL.com.
His freedom came down to the same four bullets that put him in jail to begin with.
“I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years,” he told reporters according to CNN. “All they had to do was to test the gun.”
He added: “Everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”
Hinton was convicted of two separate killings of Birmingham restaurant workers — the Feb. 25, 1985, slaying of John Davidson, and the July 2, 1985, killing of Thomas Vason — even though there were no eyewitnesses linking Hinton to the crimes, no fingerprints linking him to the scene, and no other physical evidence except for the questionable link between a set of bullets and a gun found in Hinton’s home.
For years, Hinton’s lawyers have questioned whether the bullets could be conclusively linked to the weapon. The gun belonged to Hinton’s mother, with whom he shared a home.
Subsequent tests of the only physical evidence in the case raised serious doubts about whether the weapon in Hinton’s home had fired those bullets — and it even called into question whether the bullets were all fired from the same gun.
The ballistic evidence combined with eyewitness testimony from someone who was present at a similar crime that Hinton was never charged with comprised the entirety of the state’s case against him.
Hinton’s breakthrough came last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that his constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated. The high court overturned his conviction after finding that Hinton’s defense attorney at the time had hired an “expert” witness — a trained civil engineer Andrew Payne Jr. — whom the attorney viewed as “inadequate” because he didn’t think he was allowed to spend more than $1,000 to hire a more qualified one.
It was easy for prosecutors to discredit Hinton’s defense expert: Payne had one eye and could hardly see through the forensic microscope, and he had limited experience evaluating ballistic evidence for trials.
After the Supreme Court decision and a ruling by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, Hinton was granted a new trial. Prosecutors scrambled to find long-lost evidence and rouse witnesses — some of whom might have died.
Hinton’s lawyers with the Equal Justice Initiative asked Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Petro to dismiss the case.
On Wednesday, two Alabama prosecutors — Chief Deputy Jefferson County District Attorney John Bowers and Assistant District Attorney Mike Anderton — filed a motion to drop the charges against Hinton after three experts weren’t able to link the bullets to the weapon. Petro dismissed the case and ordered Hinton freed.
“There’s no closure one way or the other,” Bowers said, according to AL.com. “The experts did not say it did come from the pistol or that it didn’t come from the pistol.”
“It’s never happened in all my years of prosecution,” he added.
Hinton’s lawyers with EJI have long contended that their client was yet another example of a wrongfully convicted black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Hinton passed a polygraph test, but it was never admitted into evidence. And time and time again, despite witnesses testifying that they couldn’t link the bullets to Hinton, Alabama refused to re-consider his case.
“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in a written statement on Thursday. “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”
According to the AP:
Hinton was one of the longest-serving inmates on Alabama’s death row, and is one of the longest-serving inmates to be released in the United States. But Stevenson said there are many others behind bars who were convicted “based on bad science.”
Following Hinton’s release on Friday, Stevenson declared: “It’s been a long time coming.”
Standing with Hinton outside the Jefferson County Jail, AL.com reported, Stevenson said: “Mr. Hinton has spent 30 years locked in an 5-by-8 cell and with the state of Alabama trying to kill him every day.”
Said Hinton, according to the AP: “They just didn’t take me from my family and friends. They had every intention of executing me for something I didn’t do.”
He added: “I want you to know there is a God. He sits high but he looks low. He will destroy but yet he will defend — and he defended me.”
Hinton, the AP noted:
left the jail for a cemetery, planning to put flowers on the grave of his mother, who died in 2002.
After that comes the adjustment to the modern world after spending nearly half of his life in solitary confinement.
“The world is a very different place than what it was 30 years ago,” Stevenson said. “There was no Internet. There was no email. I gave him an iPhone this morning. He’s completely mystified by that.”
Where would Hinton have his first meal as a free man, AL.com asked.
“We’re going to look,” he said, “for a buffet.”
[This post has been updated.]