What Happens When You’re Exonerated After 30 Years Of Solitary Confinement

CREDIT: AP Photo/Hal Yeager

Lester Bailey, left, hugs friend Anthony Ray Hinton , right, after Hinton spent 30 years in prison

Anthony Hinton is still teaching himself how to be around other people.

On April 3, 2015, he walked out of prison a free man, cleared of two homicides that landed him on Alabama’s death row, locked away in a 5 by 7 cell. When he was first released, Hinton went to a nearby mall “to try to get used to people.” The anxiety of being surrounded by large crowds — after years of sensory deprivation — caused him to break down in public. He went to the mall a second time, during the week when fewer people were there, and was able to have fun. But he still has bouts of anxiety.

Before he was exonerated, thanks in large part to forensics experts who testified on his behalf in 2014, Hinton spent 30 years in solitary confinement for crimes he didn’t commit. His conviction wasn’t based on DNA, fingerprints, or eyewitness testimony. What landed him behind bars was a firearm examiner’s claim that bullets found at the crime scenes belonged to a gun owned by Hinton’s mother — a type of evidence that has been discredited by forensics experts for years.

Hinton is just one of 149 people exonerated last year. According to the National Registry of Exonerations’ annual report released Wednesday, there were more exonerations in 2015 than than any other year to date — 10 more than in 2014. Taken together, those men and women spent an average of 14.5 years behind bars.

But 2015 wasn’t just a record year because of the total number of exonerations. The types of cases people were released for and the kinds of evidence that landed them in prison in the first place were historic as well. The database, a project of University of Michigan’s law school, tracks all of the demographic information of exonerees (race, age, gender, county), the crimes they were convicted of and the kinds of evidence that landed them in prison in the first place.

Last year alone, 58 and 47 defendants were found innocent in homicide and drug cases, respectively — record highs for both categories of crime. There were also more false confession, guilty plea, and official misconduct cases than in previous years.

Hinton, now 59 years old, knows all about official misconduct and what it’s like to be wrongfully convicted of murder. During his trial, key officials made up evidence to use against him, refused to consider evidence that pointed to his innocence, and provided grossly inadequate defense. The prosecutor used junk science as evidence. A judge wouldn’t let the defense use a polygraph test, which Hinton passed with flying colors, as evidence that could absolve the defendant of wrongdoing. And Hinton’s court-appointed attorney didn’t hire a forensics expert who could testify on the defendant’s behalf. Instead, he hired a visually-impaired civil engineer who had no knowledge of firearms identification or how to use forensics machinery.

For 16 years, the state refused to reopen Hinton’s case, despite proof of his innocence. And since his release, the state has made no apologies for what it did to him.

“[Ten] months will not erase 30 years, the pure hell that I went through,” he told ThinkProgress, nearly one year after he walked out of prison.

Hinton is now almost 60 years old and finding his footing as a free man. He lives in his mother’s old house in Birmingham. Every day, he wakes up at 3 a.m. and goes on a five-mile walk. He likes being outside, since he spent 30 years in isolation. He’s been doing a lot of reading, and attends church every Wednesday and Sunday.

Although a typical day for him appears standard for someone his age, Hinton is truly starting over from scratch. That means having to learn the most basic skills that most people take for granted.

“When I got out I had to learn how to reuse a steak knife and a fork,” he said. “You have to use these simple phones. They call them simple but they most definitely don’t seem simple to me. Technology is something little kids are able to master. For some reason I just cannot get the hang of it, but I’m doing the best I can with it.”

He’s also coping with mental illness, while adjusting to his new life.

“I do believe I do have mental problems, because sometimes I just find myself crying for no reason,” he said. “The state of Alabama did not offer me any type of assistance, as far as medical, psychological, anything.” Alabama hasn’t offered financial compensation, either.

Unlike most people who are released from prison, Hinton does have a source of income. Equal Justice Initiative, the legal organization in Alabama that helped secure his freedom, has booked paid speaking engagements for him. That’s something Hinton is extremely grateful for, because he knows the job market is hard to navigate for someone in his position.

“I haven’t focused on [finding employment] because, mostly everything, from what I’ve been told, you have to know [what to do with] the computer,” he continued. “I just don’t have that skill. And then when you fill out applications, you got this 30 year gap.”

Despite these setbacks, Hinton is optimistic about the future. And he tries not to think negatively.

“Right now, I’m just focused on what I do have and not focused on what I don’t have,” he said. “I don’t wake up thinking about it. I just try to enjoy today.”