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April 06, 2015 Practice Points

Freedom after 28 Years on Death Row

By Michael L. Huggins

In 1985, at the age of 30, Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to death for two murders in Birmingham, Alabama. Now, 28 years later, on the basis of a new ballistics analysis, he has been exonerated. In the near three decades Hinton spent in his cell measuring 5-by-8-feet, his children grew up, his mother passed away, and many of his fellow inmates were executed.

At the time of his conviction, the only evidence connecting Hilton to the killings was an analysis of bullets taken from the crime scene. The victims were two fast food restaurant workers who were murdered during two separate 1985 robberies in Birmingham. A survivor at a third restaurant robbery picked Hilton out of a photo lineup. When state experts conducted a ballistics analysis, they said that markings on the bullets found at the scene of the crime matched a .38-calliber revolver belonging to Hilton's mother. They offered no fingerprints or eyewitness testimony.

On appeal, a defense analysis showed that the bullets did not match the gun, said Equal Justice Initiative Director, Bryan Stevenson. In a 16-year fight for Hinton's release, Stevenson was unable to convince Alabama to reexamine the evidence from Hilton's trial. His success with the case followed his victory last year before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Hinton's trial counsel was "constitutionally deficient." Wrongly believing that he had only $1,000 to hire a ballistics expert to rebut the state's case, the defense attorney was only able to find a civil engineer with little ballistics training and who admitted he had trouble operating the microscope given his one eye.

Following the Supreme Court's ruling, the Jefferson County district attorney's office conducted a new ballistics test. Unable to match the crime scene bullets to the gun, the district attorney's office moved to drop the case on Wednesday, April 1.

On Good Friday morning, as Hinton's lawyers escorted him outside of the jail, friends and family rushed to embrace him. Hinton's sisters wiped tears of joy, saying "Thank you, Lord," as they wrapped their arms around their brother.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1973 and the sixth in Alabama.

Keywords: minority trial, litigation, Hinton, exoneration, death row, wrongful conviction, ballistics expert

Michael L. Huggins is a J.D. Candidate at Fordham University School of Law in New York, New York.

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