MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Defense attorneys said the release of a man after nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row is an argument for the establishment of a conviction integrity unit to investigate claims of innocence.
The units, established in some areas of the country, review claims of innocence, separate from the court system. North Carolina in 2006 established the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate claims based on new evidence. Prosecutors' offices in a handful of large cities, including New York and Dallas, have created their own integrity units.
"It's not a burden. It's not an incredible cost to have some commission that can look at this and review things," said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said.
Ray Hinton was freed earlier this month after nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row when new ballistics tests directly contradicted the evidence used to convict him in 1980's.
Hinton was convicted of killing John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason during separate 1985 robberies at Mrs. Winner's and Captain D's restaurants in Birmingham. Investigators became interested in him after a survivor at a third restaurant robbery picked Hinton out of a photo lineup. The only evidence linking him to the slayings were bullets found at the crime scenes. State experts testified at his trial that the bullets matched a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Hinton's mother.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that Hinton had ineffective trial counsel and sent the case back to lower court for a retrial. Prosecutors dropped the case after a new forensic analysis failed to match crime scene bullets to a gun found in Hinton's home.
"That's the one thing I hope comes out of this. I think we desperately need a conviction integrity unit," Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said last week after winning Hinton's freedom.
"Don't be confused. Had we not gotten the United States Supreme Court to turn this case around, we would have gone into federal court where we would have had a lower chance of success. He would have gotten an execution date, and he would have been executed," Stevenson said.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has received 1,664 claims since its inception which resulted in eight exonerations, according to the group's website. A spokesman for The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic which only handles cases involving postconviction DNA testing, said there are at least 16 conviction integrity units started by district attorneys across the country. Each unit works differently.
Jones, who represents death row inmate Bill Kuenzel in an appeal, said inmates face high procedural bars in trying to get courts to review convictions.
Kuenzel's lawyers found out 22 year after the trial that a key witness who placed him at the crime scene had told the grand jury that she couldn't really see a face as she drove by the store. Her trial testimony backed up plea deal testimony from a man who admitted being at the crime scene but fingered Kuenzel as the triggerman.
However, judges on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals during arguments last week asked Kuenzel's lawyers how they could rule in his favor since he had missed a deadline to file a new evidence claim
Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw argued that the federal court had already ruled that the new information doesn't prove Kuenzel's innocence. Crenshaw told the court that there was other evidence, including handwriting in a notebook, that suggested the two men were constructing a fake story to tell police.
Jones said there are high emotions in capital murder trials and that can lead to loss of objectivity about the evidence.
"There are those instances when a prosecutor gets too involved in the case. It's easy to do when you're dealing with the family," Jones said.
"I think one of these integrity commissions would be able to strip through that, get away from the emotions, and look at cases objectively and say: One, is this person innocent. Two, even if they're not innocent, did they get a fair trial," Jones said.
Janette Grantham, state director of Victims Of Crime And Leniency, a victims' rights advocacy group, disagreed. "I don't think it will help either side."
Grantham said the relatives of murder victims also want the right person punished for the crime, but that the court system is the place to examine those appeals. The appeals process, she said, now can take decades. Grantham said she feared anything that could delay that process further.
Grantham said the man convicted of killing her brother, Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham, served 32 years on death row. "It was just appeals."
Grantham, who refuses to speak the name of the man who killed her brother, said he eventually had his sentence reduced to life in prison.
"It's not like we rush out and try to execute them," Grantham said.
The Alabama attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.