MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In his first day free, after nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row, Ray Hinton said he kept asking a question to his childhood friend.
"You just got to tell me we can stay out tonight that we don't have to go in after an hour," Hinton said, referring to the hour limit that inmates got on yard time.
Hinton spent 28 years on death row for two 1985 murders that occurred during separate robberies of fast-food restaurants in Birmingham. He was set free on April 3 after new ballistics tests contradicted the only evidence — an analysis of crime-scene bullets — used to convict him decades ago.
In his first days off death row, Hinton said he sometimes enjoys just driving, relishing the freedom to simply move about as he wants. He says he's not angry, crediting God for suppressing the hatred that otherwise could devour him "like a form of cancer."
"I have too much to live for to allow a bunch of cowards to take my joy. I refuse to give them my joy," Hinton said.
"I'm at peace with myself. The thing is, are they at peace? They know what they did. They know they lied 30 years ago. I feel that every man that played a part in sending me to prison, every man or woman, whether the judges, prosecutors, ballistic experts, or witness, whoever — they will answer to God. So I'm going to enjoy my life the best I can," Hinton said.
Attorney Bryan Stevenson, director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative has called it a case study in how poverty and racial bias led to a wrongful conviction.
Hinton was arrested for the two 1985 murders after a survivor at a third robbery identified Hinton in a photo lineup — even though he was clocked in working at a grocery store warehouse 15 miles away. There were no fingerprints or eyewitness testimony, but prosecutors said at the time that bullets found at the murder scenes matched a .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Hinton's mother.
His poorly funded defense hired a one-eyed civil engineer with little ballistics training to rebut the state's evidence. The defense expert was obliterated on cross-examination as he admitted he had trouble operating the microscope.
Stevenson, who took up Hinton's case 16 years ago, said an independent analysis showed the bullets didn't come from the gun, and fought for years to get the state to take another look at the case.
A breakthrough only came when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Hinton's defense was so deficient that it was unconstitutional. Prosecutors dropped plans for a second trial when three state forensic experts couldn't determine if any of the bullets were fired through the revolver, or even from the same gun.
"They took half my life and it's like they didn't care. They were willing to kill an innocent man," Hinton said.
"Thirty years ago, I had a judge that stood up proudly and sentenced me to death. I had a prosecutor who couldn't wait to get in front of a camera and say that they had took the worst killer off the streets of Birmingham. But come April 3, no judge was willing to say Mr. Hinton we apologize for the mistake that was done. No D.A. was there to say we apologize."
During Hinton's 28 years on death row, dozens of inmates, men he came to view as family, were executed either by Alabama's "Yellow Mama" electric chair or by lethal injection.
"The generator would kick in when they pulled the switch. The lights would dim on and off," Hinton said. Alabama for years traditionally performed executions at midnight.
Five minutes after midnight, the inmates would start banging on the bars.
"We did that not knowing if the condemned man had a family or anybody back there in his support. We were just trying to let him know that we were still with him to the very end."
He was arrested at age 29. He turns 59 in June. When Hinton went to death row, Ronald Reagan was president. The technology of 2015 is "outrageous," he said.
After being released last month, he got in a car equipped with a GPS navigation device that gave spoken directions.
"The lady said, 'Turn left' I looked in the backseat and wanted to know where she was at," Hinton said, marveling at the device.
After living decades mostly alone in a prison cell, he has a hard time with crowds. Friends took him to a shopping mall, but he had to leave almost immediately.
Even eating is a change. Death row inmates are given only plastic spoon to eat their meals. Friends took him to a Roadhouse steakhouse to eat, where he had to relearn how to use a knife to cut a steak.
"I just followed their lead watching everybody else cut their steak, because I didn't want to embarrass anyone."
The day he was freed, one of the first things he did was to visit the grave of his mother. He sat down and wept.
Beulah Hinton had always believed in the innocence of "her baby" as she called the youngest of her 10 children, but did not live to see him released from prison.
As a boy, his mother had told him not to fear the police, to never run from them or hide from them. That faith is gone, he said.
He has a plea to people who serve on juries, particularly capital murder cases. Listen. Question.
"Be careful. Have an open mind. Pray about their decision before they make it," Hinton said. "In my case, they knew that gun didn't match 30 years ago."
Hinton said he survived death row with a combination of faith in God and sense of humor. "I just didn't believe the God that I served would allow me to die for something I didn't do." He also harnessed his imagination to travel the world from the confines of a tiny cell.
"Being able to control your mind is a beautiful thing. I went everywhere that my mind could take me Brazil, the Bahamas, Paris," Hinton said.
"I didn't want to think about where I was. Being in a five-by-seven every day for 365 days a year is more than what the average man could stand," Hinton said. "You weren't built to be in a cage that long."