After Nearly 30 Years, Alabama Releases Exonerated Man from Death Row

A judge ordered Anthony Ray Hinton’s release after revisited evidence proved his innocence.

Anthony Ray Hinton after being released from Alabama's death row on April 3. (Photo: Marvin Gentry/Reuters)

Apr 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, walked free today (April 3) after spending nearly three decades on Alabama’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Hinton was one of the country’s longest-serving death row inmates.

“For all of us that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing, because I shouldn’t have [sat] on death row for 30 years,” Hinton told reporters.

The case against Hinton began in 1985, when two men were fatally shot at a Birmingham, Alabama, fast-food restaurant. Prosecutors connected the murders to a gun owned by Hinton, who was then 29 years old and had no violent criminal record. Hinton maintained his innocence. He passed a police polygraph test, but the judge wouldn’t allow the results to be considered during the trial. In 1986, Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death. The Equal Justice Initiative—a nonprofit legal advocacy group—took up his case and argued that retesting of the bullets from the crime scene proved the shots were not fired from Hinton’s gun. Prosecutors declined to reexamine the case.

It was not until last year that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered his case to be retried, after agreeing the original gun experts were inadequate. In early March of this year, a crime lab retested bullets from the bodies of the two victims and determined they couldn’t be tied to the gun taken from Hinton’s home, finally dismantling the prosecution’s argument. A Jefferson County circuit judge dismissed the case on Thursday morning.

Decades behind bars for the wrongly convicted seems to be a theme in the news as of late. In February, a 48-year-old Illinois man was released after DNA evidence proved he hadn’t killed a teenage girl nearly 30 years ago. And just last week, Louisiana’s refusal to pay restitution to Glenn Ford, an exonerated man who spent 30 years on death row, made headlines. Then there’s Ricky Jackson of Ohio, who just won a $1 million settlement for the nearly 40 years he was behind bars.

According to exoneration advocacy group The Innocence Project, 14 years is the average time an inmate lives behind bars before being exonerated. These recent cases highlight the dramatic worst-case scenario for the wrongly convicted.

While Hinton’s release is a clear victory, the Equal Justice Initiative said it was bittersweet. “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” said Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson in a statement. “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”