If you want to understand why we should abolish the death penalty, consider the case of Anthony Ray Hinton.
If you don't want to understand, consider it anyway.
Authorities arrested Hinton in 1985, after a string of robberies at restaurants in Birmingham. In the first two robberies, the managers were killed and there were no witnesses or physical evidence to identify a suspect. After a third similar robbery at a Quincy's in Bessemer, the manager survived the shooting and later picked Hinton from a photo lineup.
Here's the thing, at the time of the robbery, Hinton had an air-tight alibi. He had been working in a warehouse 15 miles away. The warehouse was even locked, so Hinton couldn't have slipped out on his shift while no one was looking.
Prosecutors never charged Hinton with the Quincy's robbery, but they still used the manager there as a witness against Hinton in the other murders.
The proof they had to tie them all together - the supposed murder weapon, a Smith and Wesson .38 that had belonged to Hinton's mother.
A ballistics "expert" for the prosecution testified that the bullets from all three robberies matched that weapon. I put "expert" in quotation marks because of what we know now after analysis by multiple other experts - that the bullets from those three robberies couldn't be matched to each other, much less to Hinton's mother's gun.
Hinton didn't have the money for a qualified ballistics expert during his trial.
I'm going to take a moment now to rant before we get to the horrifying parts. All my life in Alabama, I've heard the arguments, not just in favor of the death penalty, but arguments that the death penalty we have isn't good enough.
- That the appeals take too long, and we should set a time limit of (insert your number here: 10 years, five years, a week, string 'em up behind the courthouse that day).
- That victims' families shouldn't have to go through all this.
- That we might have made mistakes in the past, but most of those exonerations have come because of advances in DNA evidence. Our science has improved our accuracy and cured the process of its problems.
That last one deserves particular attention, because it has given many of us a false sense of security. People are involved in this process, and because of that, the system will always be messy, imperfect, and sometimes downright malicious.
To see why, you have to consider what happened next to Hinton.
Hinton has been on death row for almost 30 years. During much of that time, appellate attorneys have fought to have the ballistics on the supposed murder weapon retested. The Equal Justice Initiative has been fighting for those tests since they took up the case in 1998.
Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant last year, and last month, three experts from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences tested the gun and reexamined the evidence. They found the bullets from the three robberies didn't match each other, much less the supposed murder weapon.
Let's be clear here. For decades, Alabama prosecutors have fought like hell to prevent a second look at that evidence, and by doing so, they fought against justice, not for it.
Just so we know who's responsible, let's name a few of them.
- Former Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber.
- Former Alabama Attorney General Troy King.
- Current Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.
And neither should we the voters who put them in office.
Had they been successful, the State of Alabama likely would have put an innocent man to death. Had they been successful, they would have been more guilty of murder as the man who went free on Good Friday.
"I shouldn't have sat on death row 30 years," Hinton said after his release Friday. "All they had to do was test the gun. But when you think you are high and mighty and you're above the law, you don't have to answer to nobody. But I've got news for you. Everybody who played a part in sending me to death row you will answer to God."
Don't think for a second that just because Hinton is free today, that the system worked. Hinton lost 30 years of his life. Justice will never be served.
We shouldn't abolish the death penalty because it's inhumane. There are people in the world who deserve to die - folks who have done unspeakable things.
Rather, we should abolish the death penalty because government can't be trusted to tell the difference between the folks who have it coming and those who don't.