This morning, only days after Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson delivered a galvanizing talk about racial injustice at the Milbank Tweed Forum, his client Anthony Ray Hinton was released from prison due to lack of evidence after serving nearly 30 years on death row.

Bryan StevensonAddressing a packed room on April 1 that included many lawyers-in-training, Stevenson didn’t pull any punches in describing the American criminal justice system. In the United States in 1973, 300,000 people were in jail or prison, he said. Four decades later, that number has mushroomed to 2.3 million. “The striking thing to me is that we don’t seem to be particularly ashamed of that fact,” Stevenson said. He underscored that, in a country with 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned but only five percent of its total population, the role racial discrimination plays cannot be ignored. According to the Bureau of Justice, one in three black male babies born in the US will ultimately spend time in jail or prison.

“I work in a broken system of justice,” Stevenson said.

Nonetheless, by sharing stories taken from his career defending clients on death row, Stevenson compellingly illustrated the critical need for compassion, and the characteristics necessary in lawyers and others who want to create change: the desire to get close to the issues and people they care about, the willingness to endure uncomfortable situations along the way, and the ability to maintain hope. “You cannot be someone who advances social justice if you do not protect your hope and your hopefulness,” he said.

The 16-year fight to free Hinton surely would not have succeeded without hope.

In 1985, 29-year-old Hinton was convicted of committing two murders near Birmingham, Alabama. The only evidence linking him to the crimes was the testimony of state lab technicians, who said the killer’s bullets came from a revolver found in his mother’s home. Hinton’s trial attorney mistakenly believed he had only $1,000 to hire a ballistics expert to debunk those claims, so he chose one who was unskilled and blind in one eye, and whose expertise was quickly discredited. Hinton received two death sentences.

In 1999, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), led by Stevenson, took the case, and in 2002, three gun experts testified that the bullets could not be matched to the weapon. Early last year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Hinton’s trial attorney had given “constitutionally deficient” representation, and that Hinton should get a second trial.

Yesterday, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Petro dismissed the charges against Hinton, citing lack of evidence. Walking free today, Hinton said, “For all of us that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing, because I shouldn’t sit on death row for 30 years.”

“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” Stevenson said in an EJI statement. “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”

Watch Stevenson at the Milbank Tweed Forum (1 hr, 19 min):

Posted April 3, 2015