Alabama man released after decades on death row: Sign of a flawed system?

As the number of death-row exonerees continues to grow, fundamental questions are being raised about potential flaws in the system.

Hal Yeager/AP
Pat Turner, left, hugs Anthony Ray Hinton as he leaves the Jefferson County jail, Friday, April 3, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. Hinton spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row, and was set free Friday after prosecutors told a judge they won't re-try him for the 1985 slayings of two fast-food managers.

After almost 30 years on Alabama’s death row, Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of prison a free man on Friday.

The decision by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Petro to grant the state's motion to dismiss came after more than a decade of litigation and lobbying by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

"I shouldn't have [sat] on death row for 30 years," Mr. Hinton told reporters Friday. "They had every intention of executing me for something I didn't do."

Hinton is the third death-row inmate freed in the United States in less than a month. Since 1973, 151 people besides Hinton have been released from death row. And as the number of exonerees continues to grow, fundamental questions are being raised about potential flaws in the system.

“The fact that there’s innocent people in prison or death row has transformed people’s understanding of the death penalty,” University of North Carolina political scientist Frank Baumgartner, author of “The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence,” told Monitor reporter Patrik Jonsson.

“Your opinion about the death penalty in the abstract is one thing, but meeting exonerees changes the death penalty from an abstract principle to a very practical issue of: Can the government do it right every single time?”

It is uncertain whether any innocent people may have been executed in the United States in the period since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but work published by University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross suggests that 4 percent of death row inmates may be innocent, the Monitor reported. Meanwhile, the Death Penalty Information Center lists 10 people who were executed despite strong evidence of their innocence. And the EJI points out that for every 10 people executed in the United States, one innocent person has been exonerated.

Hinton, one of the longest serving inmates on Alabama's death row, was convicted of two murders in 1985 after his mother’s revolver was linked to killings that took place in the Birmingham area. In 2002, EJI attorneys brought in three of the country’s top firearms examiners, who testified that the revolver used to convict him could not be matched to the crime evidence. However, state prosecutors refused to re-examine the case, the EJI said.

He is one of the longest-serving Alabama death row inmates and is among the longest-serving prisoners to be exonerated and released, his attorney pointed out. Hinton was 29 at the time of his conviction and maintained his innocence throughout.

"All they had to do was test the gun," he said Friday.

In 2014, the US Supreme Court concluded that Hinton had “constitutionally deficient” representation during his first trial and sent the case back for a second trial. 

“Hinton's defense lawyer wrongly thought he had only $1,000 to hire a ballistics expert to try to rebut the prosecution testimony about the bullets. The lawyer hired the only person willing to take the job at that price, even though he had concerns about the expert's credentials. At the time, jurors chuckled as the defense expert struggled to answer questions on cross-examination,” wrote Kim Chandler for the Associated Press.

Prosecutors concluded that the forensic experts could not determine whether the six crime scene bullets originally used as evidence against Hinton had come from the gun investigators had taken from his home. They moved to dismiss the charges against him.

Now, Hinton’s lawyer says his case serves as an example of why the system should be reformed.

"Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice," Bryan Stevenson, an attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, told CNN.

"I can't think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton."

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