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Anthony Ray Hinton, U.S. death row inmate, freed after 30 years

Fifty-eight-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton was released Friday morning from an Alabama prison. He hugged family members as he walked out, saying, "Thank you Jesus."

'While this moment is quite joyous ... this case is quite tragic,' said defence lawyer

A man who spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row has been freed following a decades-long fight to prove his innocence.

Fifty-eight-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton was released Friday morning from an Alabama prison. He hugged family members as he walked out, saying, "Thank you Jesus."

Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two Birmingham fast-food restaurant managers. Prosecutors linked Hinton to the killings through a .38-caliber revolver found at his house.

"We've been hoping for this. We've believed that this should have happened," said Bryan Stevenson, Hinton's attorney and director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative.
Ballistics experts wrongly linked a revolver found in Hinton's home to bullets found at a 1985 murder scene. (Alabama Dept. of Corrections/The Associated Press)

Stevenson has been arguing for 16 years that Hinton is innocent.

Hinton wept Wednesday night after learning the news that he would finally go free, Stevenson said.

"Every day, every month, every year that the state took from him, they took something that they don't have the power to give back. While this moment is quite joyous and is quite wonderful, this case is quite tragic," Stevenson said.

Bad science

Six bullets were what prosecutors used in the 1980s to connect Hinton to the slayings. A modern analysis on the bullets is what led prosecutors to drop the case against him.

The Supreme Court last year ruled that Hinton had "constitutionally deficient" representation at his initial trial. Hinton's defence lawyer wrongly thought he had only $1,000 US to hire a ballistics expert to try to rebut the prosecution testimony about the bullets.

Some things back then that experts would be willing to attest to, they would not be willing to attest to now. They would need more now.-  John R. Bowers, chief deputy district attorney

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 defence expert struggled to answer questions on cross-examination.

"He was a poor person who was convicted because he didn't have the money to prove his innocence at trial. He was unable to get the legal help he needed for years. He was convicted based on bad science," Stevenson said.

John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason were killed during robberies at Mrs. Winner's and Captain D's restaurants. Investigators focused on Hinton after a person who was shot, but survived, at a third robbery at a Quincy's restaurant identified Hinton as the person who shot him.

However, Stevenson said Hinton had an alibi showing that he was at work when the Quincy's robbery was committed.

"The connection has always been the bullets," chief deputy district attorney John R. Bowers, Jr. said Thursday.

More 'conservative' standards

At his initial trial, state experts testified that the four bullets fired during the slayings, and another two from the Quincy's robbery, had all been fired from a revolver found at Hinton's home.

However, in 2015, three different experts from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences couldn't determine if any of those bullets were fired through the revolver taken from Hinton's home, or even if they had been fired from the same gun.

Bowers said the forensics experts explained that standards have gotten more "conservative."

"Some things back then that experts would be willing to attest to, they would not be willing to attest to now. They would need more now," Bowers said.

Asked if Hinton was wrongly convicted, Bowers said he couldn't say because his "experts haven't ruled him in. They haven't ruled him out."

"I don't have the evidence necessary to proceed with prosecution. I don't have the evidence to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt anymore," Bowers said.

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