Anthony Ray Hinton (born June 1, 1956) is an American man who was wrongly convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast food restaurant managers in Birmingham, Alabama, sentenced to death, and held on the state's death row for 28 years.
In 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously overturned his conviction on appeal, and the state dropped all charges against him. It was unable to affirm the forensic evidence of a gun, which was the only evidence in the first trial. After being released, Hinton wrote and published a memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (2018). He was portrayed by O'Shea Jackson Jr.. in the 2019 film, Just Mercy.
On February 25 and July 2, 1985, two fast food managers, John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason, were killed in separate incidents during armed robberies at their restaurants in Birmingham. A survivor of a third restaurant robbery picked a photo of Anthony Ray Hinton, then age 29, from a lineup, and the police investigated him. He worked at a supermarket warehouse and lived with his mother Buhlar Hinton at her home in rural Alabama, about a half hour north of Birmingham.
Arrest, prosecution and conviction
After Hinton's arrest, his public defense attorney did not provide adequate counsel. He said to Hinton, "All of y'all blacks always say you didn’t do something." and "Y'all blacks always sticking up for each other." The credibility of his ballistics expert - the only one the attorney thought he could hire with the funds available - was torn apart by the prosecutor due to the expert's physical limitations and lack of experience. The jury disregarded the testimony of Hinton's boss, who testified that he was at work at the time of the alleged crimes.
The prosecution's only evidence at the trial was a statement that ballistics tests showed four crime scene bullets matched Hinton's mother's gun, which was discovered at her house during the investigation. No fingerprints or eyewitness testimony were introduced. Hinton was convicted of each of the two murders and sentenced to death.
In June 1988, the unanimous Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Hinton's conviction and death sentence. In June 1989, that judgment was affirmed by the unanimous Supreme Court of Alabama.
He was sent to death row, which meant that he was held in solitary confinement for nearly three decades. During his decades in prison, he was supported by his mother's unwavering faith in his innocence, as well as that of a longtime friend, Lester Bailey, who visited him monthly. His mother died in 2002.
While on death row, Hinton began to read frequently. He eventually organized a book club that was allowed to meet in the prison's law library. Among the authors whom the prisoners read and discussed were James Baldwin and Harper Lee. Finally Hinton was the last prisoner left on death row.
Hinton's initial appeals continued to be handled by his public defender, who lost each case. After Hinton had been on death row about a decade, Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit based in Montgomery, Alabama, picked up his case, handling his defense for 16 years. During the appeals, EJI introduced evidence from three forensics experts, including one from the FBI, showing that the bullets from the crime scenes did not match Hinton's mother's gun. But the state court of Alabama refused to overturn his convictions or grant a new trial.
Exoneration, release and aftermath
In February 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the state court conviction in a unanimous per curiam decision. The Court ruled that Hinton's original defense lawyer had provided "constitutionally deficient" ineffective assistance of counsel, and remanded his case to the state court for retrial. Hinton's defense lawyer had wrongly thought he had only $1,000 available to hire a ballistics expert to rebut the state’s case on evidence. The only expert willing to testify at that price was a civil engineer with little ballistics training and limited by having one eye; he admitted in court to having trouble in operating the microscope.
In November 2014, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals closed Hinton's case. On April 1, 2015 the Jefferson County district attorney’s office moved to drop the case. Their forensics experts were unable to match crime-scene bullets to Hinton's mother's gun. Prosecutors admitted that they could not match four bullets found at the crime scene with Hinton's gun, and that this was the only evidence offered in the original murder trial.
At 9:30 am on April 3, 2015, Hinton was released from prison after Laura Petro, Jefferson County Circuit judge, overturned his conviction and the state dropped all charges against him.
Hinton is the 152nd person since 1973 to be exonerated from death row in the United States, and the sixth in the state of Alabama. He said, “Everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.” Hinton filed a claim for nearly $1.5 million in compensation for his time in jail due to wrongful conviction. The legislature has resisted approval of this payment, as state authorities say that he did not prove his innocence.
Since his release, Hinton has spoken in various venues about the injustices of the Alabama judicial system and other issues related to his conviction and imprisonment. He completed a memoir entitled The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (2018), and has given readings and talks around the country about the book and his experiences.
On May 19, 2019, Hinton spoke at St. Bonaventure University's commencement exercises and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Human Letters degree. He had previously spoken to the students of the Class of 2019, six months after his release, in 2015. The students had been so inspired by his earlier address that over 100 of them submitted a petition to the university administration, asking that he be invited to speak at commencement.