Since Anthony Ray Hinton was exonerated and released from death row over two years ago, Alabama lawmakers have not only refused to compensate him for the three decades he spent on death row for a crime he did not commit, but also passed legislation changing the appeals process in death penalty cases so that innocent people like Mr. Hinton now face an even greater risk of being executed.
One of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history and among the longest serving condemned prisoners to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence, Mr. Hinton became the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983 when he was released on April 3, 2015.
Alabama law provides that compensation may be awarded to a wrongfully incarcerated person if the Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration finds that he meets the eligibility criteria, but applying for compensation is often a meaningless exercise because the statute requires a legislative enactment to appropriate the necessary funds. Mr. Hinton’s application was approved by the committee, and this session, State Senator Paul Bussman sponsored a bill to appropriate the funds to compensate Mr. Hinton. The bill never even made it out of committee.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers introduced the “Fair Justice Act.” As Mr. Hinton wrote in an op-ed, had the “Fair Justice Act” been in place when he was convicted, “I would have been executed despite my innocence.” Like other men and women sentenced to death in Alabama, where there is no state-funded office to provide counsel for postconviction proceedings, it took years to find volunteer lawyers willing and able to provide the legal assistance Mr. Hinton needed to prove his innocence. Mr. Hinton wrote:
Because the so called “Fair Justice Act” now pending before the state legislature puts time restrictions on how long death row prisoners have to prove their innocence or a wrongful conviction, this legislation increases the risk of executing innocent people and makes our system even less fair.
Indifferent to these concerns, the Alabama legislature passed the new law this spring, making it more difficult to obtain adequate counsel and imposing more unfair filing requirements. By making the state postconviction process even more complicated and arbitrary, the law increases the likelihood that clients on death row will not receive full and fair review of their cases.
“No one knows the hardship created by our inefficient system more than I do,” Mr. Hinton wrote. “No one.” But rather than pass reforms to prevent another innocent person from being wrongfully convicted and condemned to death, Mr. Hinton cautioned, Alabama is moving in the opposite direction.
Executions are carried out in the name of the people of Alabama and we should all be concerned if we make our system less reliable and the execution of innocent people more likely.