US state lacks ev­i­dence, frees man af­ter 30 years


A man who spent nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row walked free two days af­ter pros­e­cu­tors ac­knowl­edged that the only ev­i­dence they had against him couldn’t prove he com­mit­ted the crime.

Ray Hin­ton was 29 when he was ar­rested for two 1985 killings. Freed on Fri­day at age 58, with gray hair and a beard, he was em­braced by his sob­bing sis­ters, who said “thank you Je­sus,” as they wrapped their arms around him out­side the Jef­fer­son County Jail.

Hin­ton had won a new trial last year af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his trial coun­sel was in­ad­e­quate. Pros­e­cu­tors on Wed­nes­day moved to drop the case af­ter new bal­lis­tics tests con­tra­dicted those done three decades ago. Ex­perts couldn’t match crime scene bul­lets to a gun found in Hin­ton’s home.

“I shouldn’t have sat on death row for 30 years. All they had to do was test the gun,” Hin­ton said.

The state of Alabama of­fered no im­me­di­ate apol­ogy.

Hin­ton was ar­rested in 1985 for the mur­ders of two Birm­ing­ham fast-food restau­rant man­agers af­ter the sur­vivor of a third restau­rant rob­bery iden­ti­fied Hin­ton as the gun­man. Pros­e­cu­tion ex­perts said at the trial that bul­lets re­cov­ered at all three crime scenes matched Hin­ton’s mother’s .38 cal­iber Smith & Wesson re­volver. He was con­victed de­spite an alibi: He had been at work in­side a locked ware­house 15 min­utes away dur­ing the third shoot­ing.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Hin­ton had “con­sti­tu­tion­ally de­fi­cient” rep­re­sen­ta­tion at trial be­cause his de­fense lawyer wrongly thought he had only US$1,000 to hire a bal­lis­tics ex­pert to re­but the state’s case. The only ex­pert will­ing to take the job at that price strug­gled so much un­der cross-ex­am­i­na­tion that ju­rors chuck­led at his re­sponses.

At­tor­ney Bryan Stevenson, who di­rects Alabama’s Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive, called it “a case study” in what is wrong with the U.S. ju­di­cial sys­tem. He said the trial was tainted by racial bias and that Hin­ton, an im­pov­er­ished AfricanAmer­i­can man, did not have ac- cess to a bet­ter de­fense.

The in­de­pen­dent ex­perts Stevenson hired to re-ex­am­ine this ev­i­dence af­ter tak­ing on Hin­ton’s case in 1999 “were quite un­equiv­o­cal that this gun was not con­nected to th­ese crimes,” he said. “That’s the real shame to me. What hap­pened this week to get Mr. Hin­ton re­leased could have hap­pened at least 15 years ago.”

Stevenson then tried in vain for years to per­suade the state of Alabama to re-ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence. The bul­lets only got a new look as pros­e­cu­tors and de­fense lawyers tan­gled over a pos­si­ble re­trial fol­low­ing the Supreme Court rul­ing.

The re­sult: Three foren­sics ex­perts could not pos­i­tively con­clude whether the bul­lets were fired from Hin­ton’s re­volver, or whether they came from the same gun at all, ac­cord­ing to the state’s re­quest to dis­miss the case against Hin­ton. Bow­ers said the “bul­lets were so badly mu­ti­lated that they did not have the nec­es­sary mi­cro­scopic mark­ings to make a con­clu­sive de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

Hin­ton was one of the longest­serv­ing in­mates on Alabama’s death row, and is one of the longest­serv­ing in­mates to be re­leased in the United States. But Stevenson said there are many oth­ers be­hind bars who were con­victed “based on bad science.”


Friend Lester Bai­ley, left, and oth­ers greet An­thony Ray Hin­ton, cen­ter, as Hin­ton leaves the Jef­fer­son County jail, Fri­day, April 3.

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