By Jason Hanna and Ed Payne
(CNN) — Anthony Ray Hinton is thankful to be free after nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row for murders he says he didn’t commit.
And incredulous that it took so long.
Hinton, 58, looked up, took in the sunshine and thanked God and his lawyers Friday morning outside the county jail in Birmingham, minutes after taking his first steps as a free man since 1985.
He spoke of unjustly losing three decades of his life, under fear of execution, for something he didn’t do.
“All they had to do was to test the gun, but when you think you’re high and mighty and you’re above the law, you don’t have to answer to nobody,” Hinton told reporters.
“But I’ve got news for you — everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Petro had ordered Hinton released after granting the state’s motion to dismiss charges against him.
Hinton was convicted of murder in the 1985 deaths of two Birmingham-area, fast-food restaurant managers, John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason.
But a new trial was ordered in 2014 after firearms experts testified 12 years earlier that the revolver Hinton was said to have used in the crimes could not be matched to evidence in either case, and the two killings couldn’t be linked to each other.
The state then declined to re-prosecute the case.
Hinton was 29 at the time of the killings and had always maintained his innocence, said the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that helped win his release.
“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” Bryan Stevenson, the group’s executive director and Hinton’s lead attorney, said of his African-American client. “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”
Stevenson said the “refusal of state prosecutors to re-examine this case despite persuasive and reliable evidence of innocence is disappointing and troubling.”
Dressed in a dark suit and blue shirt, Hinton praised God for his release, saying he was sent “not just a lawyer, but the best lawyers.”
He said he will continue to pray for the families of the murder victims. Both he and those families have suffered a miscarriage of justice, he said.
“For all of us that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing, because I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years,” he said.
Hinton was accompanied Friday by two of his sisters, one of whom still lives in the Birmingham area. Other siblings will fly to the area to see him soon, Stevenson said.
His mother, with whom he lived at the time of his arrest, is no longer living, according to the lawyer.
Hinton planned to spend at least this weekend at the home of a close friend. He will meet with his attorneys Monday to start planning for his immediate needs, such as obtaining identification and getting a health checkup, Stevenson said.
The plan now is to spend a few weeks to get oriented with freedom and “sort out what he wants to do,” Stevenson said.
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