Exoneration From Death Row Does Not Guarantee Justice

Anthony Ray Hinton was exonerated after spending 30 years on Death Row.

Lester Bailey, left, hugs friend Anthony Ray Hinton as Hinton leaves the Jefferson County jail, Friday, April 3, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. (Hal Yeager/AP)

In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of murdering two men in Alabama and sentenced to death. For the next three decades, confined to a 5 by 8 foot Death Row cell, he maintained his innocence. Finally, the state of Alabama agreed: On Friday, Hinton's conviction was overturned and the 58-year-old was set free.

"The sun does shine," Hinton said upon learning of his release. But he did not mince words in describing the injustice brought against him.

"They just didn’t take me from my family and friends," he said. "They had every intention of executing me for something I didn’t do."

The evidence used to convict Hinton, who was found guilty of killing two restaurant workers in separate incidents in 1985, was flimsy in the extreme. No eyewitness placed Hinson at the scene of the crime, and police found no evidence of his fingerprints. Instead, prosecutors linked a set of bullets recovered at the crime scene to a gun found at Hinton's mother's house—even though they never proved that the gun fired those bullets. Hinton's defense was little help. An "expert witness," hired for his low price, had one eye and could not see through a forensic microscope. Nevertheless, a jury sentenced Hinton to death. Only the work of the Equal Justice Institute, a non-profit organization which works to exonerate falsely convicted criminals, led to his eventual exoneration.

Hinton's experience is not uncommon in the American criminal justice system. A 2014 study concluded that four percent of the 3,000 or so Americans on death row—around 120 people in total—are not guilty, and that of the 7,482 sentenced to death in the United States between 1973 and 2004, 13 percent have been executed while 4 percent have died in prison. A far larger percentage, 36 percent, have their death sentences commuted to life without parole, their cases largely forgotten. Only 2 percent are found not guilty and freed.

Even those who are exonerated, however, struggle to obtain legal justice. A week before Hinton's release, a Louisiana judge ruled that Glenn Ford, a 65-year-old released from death row last year following a 30-year-long term for a murder he did not commit, was ineligible for compensation because he attempted to dispose of evidence related to the murder. "While Mr. Ford does not have the blood of [murder victim] Isadore Rozeman on his hands," the judge, Katherine Dorroh wrote in her order, "He did not have clean hands." Also last month, an Ohio judge ruled that Dale Johnston, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for murder in 1984 and exonerated six years later, was also ineligible for compensation due to a legal technicality—even though two others confessed to the crime in 2008.

"If I am able to get everything that the state says I’m allowed to have, that’s still an insult when you figure what I lost," Johnston told the Guardian.

Capital punishment remains broadly popular in the United States, but support, by some measures, has slipped. A recent study by Pew Research found that 37 percent of Americans no longer support the death penalty for murder, more than double the percentage from 1996. Opponents of capital punishment often cite the risk of executing an innocent person as a main reason to abolish the practice. But as the experience of Ford and Johnston shows, even those inmates who are found innocent are not guaranteed justice.