Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

30 Years on Death Row: A Conversation with Anthony Ray Hinton

Anthony Hinton, just after his release from jail on Friday, March 3, 2015.
Anthony Hinton, just after his release from jail on Friday, March 3, 2015.
‘They tell you justice is blind. I am telling you that justice can see.'

Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of murdering two fast food restaurant managers in separate robberies in the Birmingham, Ala. area in 1985. The only evidence linking Hinton to the crime were bullets the state’s experts claimed matched a .38 revolver recovered from Hinton’s home. Time cards and other evidence suggested Hinton was working at his warehouse job at the time of the killings. There were no fingerprints. No eyewitness testimony linked Hinton to the killings.

Nevertheless, Hinton, then 29, was sent to death row.

Last year, after years of appeals by Hinton and his attorney, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States Supreme Court overturned Hinton’s conviction and ordered a new trial. (Stevenson is on The Marshall Project’s advisory board.)

Last month, three experts from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded the bullets from the three robberies didn't match each other and could not be linked to the supposed murder weapon.

Last Friday, Hinton emerged from his Jefferson County cell, two months shy of his 59th birthday, a free man. In doing so, he became the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This week, Hinton talked to Corey G. Johnson of The Marshall Project about his 30-year quest for justice, how he kept his sanity during decades of solitary confinement, and his return to an unfamiliar world. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s it like to be free, Ray?

I went for a walk this morning for the first time. I went where my mom used to live and walked around the yard and come back. It's hard to believe that I can go wherever I want to go without somebody talking about, ‘Well, you can't go beyond that.’ It’s kind of mind-boggling, to tell you the truth. I really haven't gotten quite used to it. I think I’m getting there, but I still have a ways to go.

What’s boggling your mind?

I haven't seen the razor wire fence and the guards in the guard towers. Or the police riding around every so many seconds or just patrolling the prison. And [on death row] you’re boxed in this like, playground, for normally an hour a day, and that’s depending on the weather, if there's enough staff. We don't walk everyday. Sometimes we didn't walk for a week, two weeks because they don't have the staff to keep you outside in order for you to get some exercise. So now I’m able to just walk out without anybody saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to go in.’ 

I’ve been to the mall and I’m just getting comfortable with people just walking, so many people behind me and in front of me, because you don't have that in there. I don't know who's walking behind me, who's that in front of me or who's beside me. It makes me a little nervous.

And that nervousness is coming from the fear that somebody can harm you?

Yes, yes, yes.

On death row, we had our separate exercise yard. On death row, you walk with a certain amount of groups. For instance, the tier that I was on, you have a total of 28 inmates, and all of us know one another, so you've got some playing basketball, some playing volleyball, some walking around the yard. So you're not constantly where a whole lot of people are around you at one time, as opposed to when I went to the mall last Saturday. They were coming and going from every direction. 

You've got to realize something, I stayed in a 5’ x 7’ for 30 years, just about. I was in that cell by myself, no one else but me. I’ve got to get used to noise and the sounds of everything because it's fairly quiet on death row. Every man is in his own world. You've got some reading books, some drawing, some watching TV, some up under their headphones. We all did our time differently. 

So, you get out here and there's people all over the place, making all kinds of noise, all up in your personal space.

Absolutely. I felt out of place, I was wondering who was really watching me. That first Friday, people were recognizing me and pointing at me, and in one way I was like okay, they've seen me on the news, and I’m thinking, What are they thinking? Do they think: There's that man that got away with it, or, There's that man that was innocent? So I’m trying to eat, and every now and then, I would look up and see people just pointing at me and looking at me, and I want to say, I’m a human being, yeah you've seen me on TV, I’m trying to adjust. 

It took me a little while to remember how to use a fork. You know we don't use forks in the penitentiary. You get a spoon. And the spoon is plastic, so I haven't used a fork in 30 years. I just really tried to order something that didn't make me look like I didn't have any home training. It’s like learning everything over again.

What did you order?

I got me some baked beans. We had baked beans down there, believe it or not. I got some fried chicken. I wanted some fish and hush puppies, and I really wanted a salad. I looked at the salad, and I couldn't never just like adjust to sticking the fork down, so I kinda put that back to the side. I just stayed with something that was natural to me — a piece of chicken. I picked it up with my hands and then bit it off. Pretty much what we would have in the penitentiary. We do have fried chicken occasionally. And like, say, every fourth of July, we’d have baked beans. I stayed with food I could get on death row.

Source: The Marshall Project, Corey Johnson, April 9, 2015

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