Freed from death row: 'I refuse to give them my joy'

2015-05-23 19:37
Ray Hinton hugs a woman as he leaves the Jefferson County jail in Birmingham, Alabama. (Hal Yeager, AP)

Ray Hinton hugs a woman as he leaves the Jefferson County jail in Birmingham, Alabama. (Hal Yeager, AP)

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Montgomery - In his first day of freedom, after nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row, Ray Hinton says he kept asking a question to his childhood friend.

"You just got to tell me we can stay out tonight that we don't have to go in after an hour," Hinton said, referring to the hour limit that inmates got on yard time.

Hinton spent 28 years on death row for two 1985 murders that occurred during separate robberies of fast-food restaurants in Birmingham. He was set free on April 3 after new ballistics tests contradicted the only evidence — an analysis of crime-scene bullets — used to convict him decades ago.

In his first days off death row, Hinton said he sometimes enjoys just driving, relishing the freedom to simply move about as he wants. He says he's not angry, crediting God for suppressing the hatred that otherwise could devour him "like a form of cancer."

"I have too much to live for to allow a bunch of cowards to take my joy. I refuse to give them my joy," Hinton said.

"I'm at peace with myself. The thing is, are they at peace? They know what they did. They know they lied 30 years ago. I feel that every man that played a part in sending me to prison, every man or woman, whether the judges, prosecutors, ballistic experts, or witness, whoever — they will answer to God. So I'm going to enjoy my life the best I can," Hinton said.

Racial bias

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative has called it a case study in how poverty and racial bias led to a wrongful conviction.

Hinton was arrested for the two 1985 murders after a survivor at a third robbery identified Hinton in a photo lineup — even though he was clocked in working at a grocery store warehouse 24km away. There were no fingerprints or eyewitness testimony, but prosecutors said at the time that bullets found at the murder scenes matched a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Hinton's mother.

His poorly funded defence hired a one-eyed civil engineer with little ballistics training to rebut the state's evidence. The defence expert was obliterated on cross-examination as he admitted he had trouble operating the microscope.

Stevenson, who took up Hinton's case 16 years ago, said an independent analysis showed the bullets didn't come from the gun, and fought for years to get the state to take another look at the case.

A breakthrough only came when the US Supreme Court ruled Hinton's defence was so deficient that it was unconstitutional. Prosecutors dropped plans for a second trial when three state forensic experts couldn't determine if any of the bullets were fired through the revolver, or even from the same gun.

‘Kill an innocent man’

"They took half my life and it's like they didn't care. They were willing to kill an innocent man," Hinton said.

"Thirty years ago, I had a judge that stood up proudly and sentenced me to death. I had a prosecutor who couldn't wait to get in front of a camera and say that they had took the worst killer off the streets of Birmingham. But come April 3, no judge was willing to say Mr Hinton we apologise for the mistake that was done. No DA was there to say we apologise."

During Hinton's 28 years on death row, dozens of inmates, men he came to view as family, were executed either by Alabama's "Yellow Mama" electric chair or by lethal injection.

Hinton was arrested at age 29. He turns 59 in June.

After living decades mostly alone in a prison cell, he has a hard time with crowds. Friends took him to a shopping mall, but he had to leave almost immediately.

Even eating is a change. Death row inmates are given only plastic spoon to eat their meals. Friends took him to a Roadhouse steakhouse to eat, where he had to relearn how to use a knife to cut a steak.


The day he was freed, one of the first things he did was to visit the grave of his mother. He sat down and wept.

Beulah Hinton had always believed in the innocence of "her baby" as she called the youngest of her 10 children, but did not live to see him released from prison.

He has a plea to people who serve on juries, particularly capital murder cases. "Be careful. Have an open mind. Pray about their decision before they make it," Hinton said.

Hinton said he survived death row with a combination of faith in God and sense of humour. "I just didn't believe the God that I served would allow me to die for something I didn't do."

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