Court Affirms Death Sentence of Man Whom EJI Contends Is InnocentSeptember 12, 2011

Anthony Ray Hinton has now spent more than 25 years on Alabama’s death row for two murders that EJI contends he did not commit. Asked for the third time in recent years to review the case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on August 26, 2011, once again denied relief.

Mr. Hinton was arrested in 1985 and charged with two separate shooting murders that occurred during robberies at two fast food restaurants near Birmingham, Alabama. There were no eyewitnesses to either crime, and the fingerprints lifted from each crime scene did not match Mr. Hinton. The only evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the murders stemmed from a third shooting at a fast food restaurant in Bessemer. The victim in the third shooting did not die and misidentified Mr. Hinton as the assailant. At the time of the third shooting, Mr. Hinton was working in a locked warehouse 15 miles from the crime scene. His supervisor and other employees confirmed his innocence but he was still prosecuted for capital murder. Police subjected Mr. Hinton to a polygraph test which confirmed his innocence but the judge refused to admit the test results at trial.

Although Mr. Hinton was never charged with this third crime, state lab technicians stated that bullets recovered from all three crimes were fired from the same weapon and claimed that they matched a weapon recovered from Mr. Hinton’s mother. Based on this gun evidence, the state charged Mr. Hinton with the two murders even though there was no other evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the crimes.

In 1999, EJI took on Mr. Hinton’s case. In June 2002, three of the country’s top gun experts testified that they had examined the state’s evidence and concluded that the crime bullets could not be matched to the weapon recovered from Mr. Hinton’s mother and that the state had erred in making that claim.

The trial court did not rule on the evidence of Mr. Hinton’s innocence for over two years and then signed an order prepared by the state denying relief to Mr. Hinton, in part because the evidence of innocence presented was “too late.” EJI appealed the court’s order and sought relief from the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court granted certiorari to review only one issue: whether Mr. Hinton’s rights to effective legal representation were violated when his appointed trial lawyer hired a retired civil engineer to testify about the gun evidence at trial. The prosecutor, judge, and defense counsel knew that Mr. Hinton could not have been convicted unless the jury believed the state's forensic experts' testimony that microscopic markings on the bullets showed they were all fired from Mrs. Hinton's gun.

Mr. Hinton's lawyer testified later that he could not find a qualified firearms expert for the money the trial court allotted to him, so he put on a man who agreed to do the case for free, but who had never done forensic firearms analysis, whose experience with guns was limited to working with heavy artillery in the military around World War II, who did not know how to operate the comparison microscope needed to examine the evidence, and had only one eye. The prosecutor at trial characterized him as a charlatan who was "no expert at all."

In 2008, the Alabama Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether this defense witness was a qualified and competent expert in forensic firearms identification.

The judge who presided over the trial and postconviction proceedings retired, and a new judge -- without hearing any new evidence about the witness's qualifications -- decided that the witness was qualified because he knew more about guns than the average person on the street.

Mr. Hinton's lawyers at EJI appealed that ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which on August 26, 2011, upheld the trial court's decision denying relief.

The compelling evidence of innocence and the state courts' long delays in addressing Mr. Hinton's claims have drawn attention and criticism from observers. The case continues to raise serious questions about the reliability of the death penalty in Alabama and capital punishment in America.