Opinion writer

Anthony Ray Hinton talks with the media outside of the Jefferson County Jail upon his release after serving nearly 30 years on death row, in Birmingham, Ala., in April 2015. (BOB FARLEY/European Pressphoto Agency)

Anthony Hinton served nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row until he was finally exonerated in 2015. The Washington Post summarized his case at the time of his release:

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 attorneys discovered the problems with the ballistic evidence in 1999. Yet state prosecutors took another 16 years to conduct their own tests, during which Hinton remained on death row.

Hinton was finally released two years ago. Yet despite spending more than half his life in prison, the 60-year-old Hinton has still yet to be compensated. The Alabama legislature just can’t seem to get around to it. From the Equal Justice Initiative:

Alabama law provides that compensation may be awarded to a wrongfully incarcerated person if the Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration finds that he meets the eligibility criteria, but applying for compensation is often a meaningless exercise because the statute requires a legislative enactment to appropriate the necessary funds. Mr. Hinton’s application was approved by the committee, and this session, State Senator Paul Bussman sponsored a bill to appropriate the funds to compensate Mr. Hinton. The bill never even made it out of committee.

This is really unconscionable. Meanwhile, since Hinton’s release the Alabama legislature has passed a different bill related to capital punishment — the Orwellian-named “Fair Justice Act,” which aims to limit the appeals of death row inmates and speed up executions. As Hinton himself wrote in an op-ed, had the Fair Justice Act been in place at the time of his conviction, he’d almost certainly be dead.

It’s nice to know where the Alabama legislature’s priorities lie, here. Instead of compensating a wrongly convicted man, and perhaps examining how his conviction could have happened, they’ve passed a law making it less likely that they’ll be asked to compensate the wrongly convicted in the future. Not because death row will be free of innocent people — the bill does nothing to ensure better capital defense, or curb prosecutorial misconduct, or address other deficiencies in the system. Instead, the new law merely makes it more likely that the wrongly convicted will be dead long before their innocence can be discovered.